Beware of the shortcomings of email

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Email is fast and efficient, but it also comes with risks. If you’re a smart communicator, you’ll be wary of the shortcomings of email…

If you work in communications, email is likely your superhighway. You use it to connect with clients, coworkers, media outlets and even your boss. It’s convenient and fast. It even gives you a audit trail, by keeping a record of what you’ve written (and what the other person replied.) It allows you to get more done. But email also comes with risks. Have you ever considered them?

I just stumbled across an old (2007) but interesting New York Times piece on the subject, by Daniel Goleman (pictured above). Headlined “E-Mail is Easy to Write (and to Mis-Read)” the article outlines how neuroscience is uncovering the shortcomings of relying on email.

Shortcoming number 1?  Email increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication. I like the way Goleman puts it:

We tend to misinterpret positive e-mail messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended. Even jokes are rated as less funny by recipients than by senders.

Goleman illustrates this by describing an interaction he had with a co-worker. The two were coming into conflict and his co-worker recognized it as a result of their email communications. She suggested a phone call and they cleared up the issue, pronto.

Miscommunication occurs, Goleman says, because writers of emails “hear” certain emotional overtones in what they’re writing. But none of these cues are sensed by the recipient. Interestingly — and tellingly — people who know each other well are less likely to have these misunderstandings online.

Goleman also interviewed Clay Shirkey an adjunct professor in New York University’s interactive telecommunications program and author of the excellent book, Here Comes Everybody. I found Shirkey’s characterization of email particularly useful. Here’s what he said:

“When you communicate with a group you only know through electronic channels, it’s like having functional Asperger’s Syndrome — you are very logical and rational, but emotionally brittle.”

Reflect on that before you write your next email.

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