Are Your Email Messages Working Against You?

Choosing to use email to convey information versus face-to-face interaction or a telephone call should be carefully considered. Email, of course, has many advantages over the others. The trouble is, many email messages are not entirely clear and often are misinterpreted. In fact, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology ((Vol. 89(6) pp. 925-936)), nearly 40% of email messages are misunderstood! This should cause all of us to hesitate before hitting the send button.

The study further found that without the benefit of paralinguistic cues such as gesture, emphasis, and intonation, email makes it very difficult to convey emotion and tone. Using ALL CAPS, bold type, or emoticons ;-) are poor substitutes for facial expressions and tone of voice. Albert Mehrabian, professor of psychology at UCLA, posited the three basic elements of face-to-face communication are words, tone of voice, and body language. Words, according to Mehrabian, account for just 7 percent of the overall content being received, while tone of voice accounts for 38 percent and body language accounts for a whopping 55 percent! If only 7 percent of information is effectively communicated via the words themselves, then a great deal of effort should be considered in choosing which words to use and the order of them in our email communication.

Should we instead abandon email altogether? Certainly not. There are many great reasons to use email, including one-to-many distribution, the timing and speed at which information can be delivered, the inclusion of hyperlinks and attachments, and the level of detail that can be included. However, too often we assume that our audience can correctly interpret our intention behind our words. Not aligning our intention with our content can lead to greater misunderstanding.

Communication can easily break down even under the best of circumstances in face-to-face interactions. With this in mind, it is essential to put great care in writing emails so they are not misunderstood. To do this, I have several suggestions:

1) Consider your audience. What assumptions are you making regarding culture, gender, age, level of education, etc? When in doubt, provide a greater level of background information than you might otherwise. And spell out acronyms.

2) Double check the title you use in the Subject box to ensure that it accurately encapsulates the body of the message. Sometimes these titles can confuse or even contradict what is written in the message itself.

3) Before sending the email, reread your message with a dispassionate eye and from an objective point of view. Ask yourself if your words could be interpreted any way other than you intend.

4) If you are sending to a large group, first send the message as a draft to only two or three people to learn whether or not your intention and the message are entirely clear to them. Only send it on to the entire group when you have agreement.

No matter what you use email for, it is essential to keep in mind the limitations of this medium. In spite of developments in video conferencing, Skype-enabled calls, and other video-enhanced technologies, the majority of our business communications are currently conducted via written words alone. The ability to clearly communicate with these words is more important now than ever.

Mark Craemer                                                                                          www.craemerconsulting.com

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About Mark Craemer
Craemer Consulting specializes in workplace communication, organization development and leadership coaching.

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