Pitfalls of an email-centric Society

We’ve all been there, a curt, quick response in an email and were off on our next task. On the receiving end is some poor soul who is feeling more and more isolated by technology and is wondering what the world is turning into.

The e-mail-centric world is upon us, in fact, it’s engulfed us with memos, meetings announcements, spam and pictures of family. Can you remember that only a few short years ago we wouldn’t have had a clue what an email was let alone that we would be sending hundreds if not thousands of them to each other.
The early promises of email seem to have come and gone, many were true and many, like a science fiction movie, were wishful thinking. My first emails were to a handful of friends in the South Bay in Southern California. I was awed, that my simple text message would be delivered mysteriously within seconds all the way across town to a friend sitting at his desk. I, like many others, had no idea how much email would shape the way we worked in the future.
The very early days of email were very crude allowing simple text messages to be moved over a network of wires known as the Arpanet. Typical, these communications were between universities and government offices. It wasn’t until the introduction of the basic Internet Provider CompuServe and Delphi that consumers, (mostly hobbyist) got our first taste of email.
That was nearly 20 years ago and has the world ever changed. Most people not only have a single email account for work but one for home, maybe one through there internet provider as well. In fact, I hold no less than twenty email addresses these days, all streaming into my inbox each evening at the click of a button. This can’t be normal (help?)
Recently, I was on the receiving end of quite a pointed and might I say hurtful email. It was curt and to the point and I remember just feeling sick about it because it had made me feel like the best thing to do was to write back and worse yet, in an even sharper and pointed tone with full intent to inflict a sting that would hurt. To make matters worse, this email had been copied (CC) to other people who I respected and whom I felt I had a good reputation with. It was at this moment, I realized the best thing to do was simply delete it and move on. The hurt quickly dissipated and I barely gave it a thought the following morning. What I took away from this was an interesting insight about email as a medium for communication, at best it was a very delayed way to communicate between two people as the conversation must be bounced back and forth until its lifespan has been spent and it’s mission accomplished.

Lesson 1: Email is not a very effective way to talk back and forth with someone. It can be easy to say something you might regret only moments after sending.

The next thing I realized about that hurtful email was that if I had been in person with the sender, they would have not likely said the very words that were now immortalized in our companies servers forever. It seems obvious that if you have a conversation to carry out with someone via email or a face to face, the conversation will likely look much different. Email is such a faceless way of communication that it’s easy to fantasize a “bumbling idiot” on the receiving end much like we do while driving our cars to work when someone cuts us off. When we monsterize or stupidify the person on the other end of our communications, it’s easy to be harsh and condescending. When we include others in our correspondence it’s down right spiteful. Imagine for a moment that you have made a mistake in the office, your boss call you over and you know this is probably not a good thing but before he begins, he calls a few friends and peers over to listen as he corrects you with subtle, condescending tones. Isn’t this exactly what we do when we copy our bosses and there bosses on communications that in a face to face situation would only need to happen between two people. This side of email is probably one of the most dangerous and repulsive. It’s human nature to look for ways to prop ourselves up at the expense of others and email makes this social crime easier than ever.

Lesson 2: Remember you are communicating with a living person who has a family and stresses outside of the workplace. If you wouldn’t invite someone to listen to your spoken conversation then don’t include them in your email conversation. Remember your human nature is to make yourself appear better than others. Don’t fool yourself; you’re as individually unique as the person is on the receiving end of your email.

The sheer number of emails I receive everyday is staggering. Between my work and home accounts, I receive well over 200 a day. One area that does seem to justify a bit of righteous anger is in the area of SPAM. This useless email litters everyone’s email boxes and consumes more and more of our time each day. Spam is the junk mail and telemarketing phone calls of the internet, the average corporation handles more spam mail everyday than legitimate email and is spending more money trying to get ride of it at an alarming pace. However, what really is spam? We know obvious spam such as adds for lower mortgages rates, pills to increase of sex drive and cable TV descramblers, but what about business spam? Is it possible that we have become our own worst enemy thinking that everyone everywhere wants to know what were doing every step of the way? In the corporate environment, this is called CYA (Cover your %#@) computing and has been instilled in us that if we can prove we didn’t make decision or the mistake that cost the company a bundle, then we can save out job. Think about it, who was the last person you know was fired because they could not prove that had or had not emailed something. This is more of a myth than a fact and who would really want to work for a company of perfect people. By the very nature that we are people, we make mistakes, which we learn from and get better at what were ultimately trying to accomplish. In a recent meeting with an member of our upper management, it was refreshing to here comments from that they felt a face to face chat would be much more appropriate than endless bantering in email.

Lesson 3: Communicate with only those who need every detail. If you must brief everyone, take some time at the end of the day or week to quickly summarize what you have been discussing. Your coworkers will thank you for it.

When I was a kid, I had choirs to do such a mow the lawn and take out the trash, I can remember trying to find anything to avoid performing the choir at hand. It’s wasn’t until I was reminded over and over again that I needed to take the trash out, my parents probably upset by this time, that I got the job done. In the email world, this same situation exists, it’s known as the “pass the buck” email. I’m always amazed at how quickly a job that needs to be done can be shuffled off to some poor unsuspecting soul who then has to cleverly get it off his plate onto someone else’s. Call me a cynic, but more times than not, the communication in these emails get more short, direct and colorful and they move from one person to another. Managers throwing their staffs in a frenzy and upper mangers being more direct to get the matter finally taken care of. These emails typically evolve into a, “that’s not my job, I’ll send in on to the guy who does this” phenomenon. I can’t stand to let these go by me without looking at the initial email string that started the web of chaos to begin with. You have the classic telephone game problem here, no one reading the original problem and simply responding to the last guys comments to get it off his plate. I wish we could attach a device on an email like this to see how much effort, time and money these shipwrecked communications take to get the initial request completed. This is the epitome and pinnacle of wastefulness.

Lesson 4: Be proactive to resolve emails that have traveled across many email boxes. The poor guys who initiated it will really appreciate it and who knows he may return the favor some day.

In conclusion, I see a day coming, like the reawakening of a 60’s movement, when people will get rid of their email address and many other “necessary” technical marvels in favor of traditional, face-to-face communications with real people.

a white paper – written by greg paskal – jan 2005

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