I was about to write this article anyway when XKCD posted this comic which reinforces my point. People act differently in email than they do in person. Everyone knows this to be the case, but they often don’t act like it. Usually when someone talks about how email is different it comes in the context, as in the comic, of a flame war. It’s very easy to misunderstand someone’s e-mail and assume it is more aggressive than it really is. However, the lack of subtle emotion isn’t the only downside of email. There are times to use email and times when it isn’t the right tool. Knowing the downsides of email can allow us to better understand when not to use it. Sometimes it is better to put down the Outlook and walk down the hall.
Some people are addicted to email. For them, it is the only communications medium. However, just as email has its benefits–low-friction communication medium, low interruption value, near-instant transmission time–it also has its downsides. An impersonal nature is one of them. While not as often recognized, so is the infinite time and space allowed. Too much space removes the forcing factor present in conversation to boil things down to key points. E-mail is not a good decision-making tool for this very reason. Think about it. How many times have you seen a discussion in email about how to implement a feature or fix a bug get bogged down in tediously long message threads with loads of new text in each message? It can be very hard to get resolution to a contentious issue in email because email doesn’t make you focus.
When there are no size and time limitations, it is easy to (attempt to) refute every point in at argument with each message. In a person to person conversion, people can’t keep a dozen arguments in their mind at once. They are forced to focus on only the most important points. In email, each minute point can be a breeding ground for argument. With this point-by-point refutation, it is also easy to get lost in the minutia. Email doesn’t solve the problem that people can’t keep a dozen arguments in their mind at once and so by bullet point 8, what was stated in bullet point 1 is forgotten and often contradictory arguments are raised. In the legal profession this is called arguing in the alternative and expected. In the rest of the world, it just makes you look dumb. It certainly doesn’t help come to a consensus answer.
Something else happens in real conversation that is missing in email. When two people are discussing something, one person will often stop the other and drill down on something that was just said. In email, this opportunity is lost. It’s impossible to stop someone mid-mail and ask a clarifying question. Instead, the question is asked after the fact. This either just adds to the complexity of the thread or distorts it because the answer would have affected the rest of the message.
While trying to hammer out a decision in email is enticing, actually getting to a decision can be hard. Instead of just bouncing mails back and forth, stop. Think. Is this something that would be better handled in person where emotions are visible, communication can be interrupt-driven, and time forces a focus on the most critical points? If so, walk down the hall or schedule a meeting. My rule of thumb is to try email first. When it works it is very efficient. However, if email fails to produce results in a few messages, I pick up the phone or find the person to talk. If its a larger group, I schedule a meeting. Try it. Decisions will come much faster.
For some tips on keeping meetings running smoothly, check out my post on the subject.