The dangers of email

The dangers of email are familiar, yet under-appreciated. Most of us live with those dangers every day and, for some of us, they’re achingly real:

  • It’s easy to get the tone wrong, and come across as angry, judgemental, condescending or inconsiderate
  • It’s easy to forget social niceties and send an unintended insult
  • It’s easy to misunderstand or be misunderstood (meaning that future communication is based on misunderstanding)
  • It’s easy to miss important points (usually from reading too quickly)
  • It’s easy to miss some email protocol that’s important to your recipient.

The big problem with email is that, once it’s out there, it can’t be recalled. And that leads to some standard advice:

  • Think before you send
  • Don’t commit to email anything that you wouldn’t say face-to-face
  • Be conscious that any criticism in an email comes across as many, many times more harsh than it will every sound over the phone
  • Always remember that email is independent of time and geography (if I’m not there to watch your face, I can’t adjust my message in response and I can’t tailor my message to suit you individual needs on that day).

I know all this stuff. I reflect on it often. I notice mistakes when they’re made by others. And I talk about email in my writing classes.

And yet, I pressed send.

It doesn’t really matter whether I was right or wrong. In my recipient’s eyes I can only be wrong because I’ve sent a message that questions the person’s professionalism.

If my goal in communication is to preserve the relationship (rather than twist the knife or make my dissatisfaction clear), then pressing send is always the wrong choice.

When it comes to email, tread warily. If in doubt, pick up the phone.

If you ever find yourself thinking about how to communicate on something that’s even a little bit important, prioritise face-to-face. If that’s not possible, opt for the phone.