The perils of email

Posted on February 3, 2012. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: |

Email, which celebrated its 40th birthday in 2011, is something of a paradox.

It’s globally ubiquitous but also deeply personal.

There are more than 3 billion email accounts generating in excess of 90 trillion messages annually.

Can’t quite get your arms around 90 trillion of anything? Emails fly through cyberspace at a rate of nearly 3 million per second. Your personal share of that volume is probably somewhere between 50 and 100 emails per day, if you’re typical.

Conversely, traditional mail has ebbed to a record low. The U.S. Postal Service’s annual survey reveals that the average American now receives a personal letter only once every seven weeks.

Like snail mail, where junk fills the nearly two-month gap between personal correspondence, email is mostly spam—as many as eight out of 10 messages.

With that much email being written, sent and read, it’s probably time our education system caught up and started training youngsters on the pros, cons, pitfalls, proper etiquette and common sense of email usage.

Here’s a short primer from my own observations, which might form the nucleus of a class curriculum.

  • Email is not a conversation.

If you expect replies to your emails to appear within minutes, don’t.

That’s what the little smartphone in your pocket or purse is for.

In one online poll, nearly eight out of 10 respondents believed the acceptable response time to an email was between one day and one week. Many business coaches suggest checking email infrequently because it tends to interrupt productivity.

So it’s not only an arrogant assumption to expect that an email recipient is waiting on your next message, it’s a patently false one.

  • Email is mail.

Would you scribble a single sentence on a sheet of paper and slap a stamp on it? Not if you wanted to be taken seriously, or understood clearly.

Like a letter, email should always begin with a greeting (Dear, Hello, etc.) and end with a salutation/signature (Best Regards, Thanks, etc.).

The forwardability of email alone ought to inspire care regarding letter structure. You never know whose eyes your email will clandestinely come before.

  • Email is great for information, itemization and confirmation.

Making a list? Sharing some facts? Needing an approval? Email rocks in such situations. It creates a record with a time stamp. It can be forwarded, its contents copied and pasted, and even printed for the file.

  • Email is not great for communication.

If we define good communication as a two-way transfer, it’s obvious that email fails to perform from the get-go.

It’s a one-way medium that offers no immediate feedback. It’s also completely devoid of inflection and tone, often lacking in grammar and syntax, and always subject to gross misinterpretation. It’s like trying to carry on a conversation through a one-way mirror, only worse.

  • Email is abominable for problem resolution.

When it comes to solving problems or working out issues, the devil’s in the emails. To modify Murphy’s Law, anything that can be taken wrong in email will be.

After all, if you stop to think about it, consider the convoluted minefield an email must navigate.

The physical separation between the words and the recipient removes inhibitions; people say things in email they would never utter face-to-face. So right off the bat the context is flawed, making emails unnecessarily inflammatory by nature.

Then there’s the capability issue—even very good writers can have difficulty delivering clear meaning in their paragraphs; mediocre or poor writers may be incapable of clarity. But there’s no “bad writer” filter to reject an email whose author mangled her meaning.

  • Email is blind.

Imagine a man proposing to his girlfriend in an email message. She can’t see the love in his eyes, or hear the tremble of his voice. She can’t even know, with certainty, that he wrote the email.

Likewise, he has no idea about her first reaction. Did she smile and radiate excitement at the idea? Or roll her eyes in dismay? Even if he got a quick reply, all the body language of the moment (which often constitutes the most important communication) is lost forever to both parties.

For that matter, until the sender receives a reply there’s no way to know if the email has even been received—or, whether it has also possibly been forwarded (accidentally or otherwise) to unintended parties.

  • Email is here to stay.

Email can be sent and received on computers, phones and tablets, so its proliferation is predicted to continue. The Radicati Group, which forecasts technology-market trends, expects 4.1 billion email accounts by the end of 2015. So much of our lives’ correspondence—at home, school and work—is now borne by email that it’s becoming imperative to be effective with the medium. Like other forms of communication, the true test of success is in the result. Never send an email when a phone call or a personal visit will work better. Life is still a people business.

Now, excuse me while I email this column in.

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