I sent my first email in 1997 from my cubicle in our first real office. We were on the 5th floor of a building that used to be the corporate office of a company called Allis Chalmers that disappeared in the mid-80’s. The office was a significant upgrade from the mobile office trailer I’d most recently been working from, which had replaced my car, which had replaced my house, which had replaced my apartment (in case you were interested). It had “indoor” plumbing and a conference room. It also had a T1 line that gave us access to the internet, along with email.
I had no idea how to use it at first, but after I sent out my first few emails, I was hooked. What a great tool. No more letters, missed phone calls or annoying vague voicemails like “hey, it’s me. Call me back.” Just send an email about whatever you want and get a response whenever it’s convenient for the other person. What could be better? Obviously, I was naïve. Fast forward 20 years and email isn’t cool anymore. It’s old, boring and disruptive. It’s also ubiquitous, at least at most workplaces, and I don’t see that going away for a while, even though texting, Twitter, Yammer and other alternatives have clearly given email a run for its money.
At work, it seems to me that email’s made more and more of our inter-everything (office, customer, vendor) communication non-verbal. For a guy like me who hates the phone this should feel like the perfect alternative. The problem is that while we may be communicating with keyboards, rather than voices, we’re still humans, which means we have feelings.
We haven’t even figured out how to accurately interpret things we hear (for example my daughter might tell my wife that I “yelled” at her, when the reality is that I was calm, but stern perhaps), so interpreting what we read in an email can still be challenging, or overwhelming.
I’m not sure how much time is lost or wasted by people wondering what someone meant in an email (“is she saying I’m lazy?”) but based on what I see in just my own little world, it’s a lot. I know I’ve wasted lots of people’s time, and hurt feelings, or lost credibility, or made someone think I was mad when I wasn’t by being careless with my emails. I remember this hitting home with me one morning when I could tell Karen was upset with me. That didn’t happen often, but when it did, you could tell. I tried to ignore it, thinking it might go away with time. That didn’t work.
When we finally talked about why she was angry, it turned out not to be about her at all, but about an email I’d sent to a person on her team, that she then was asked to read by that person. The conclusion they’d drawn (already and on their own) was that I was disrespectful to the person I’d sent it to, and wrong. I could understand the wrong part, that happens all the time with me. But the disrespectful part? That was not my intention, so how did that become their perception? And then it hit me. This email thing isn’t non-verbal communication after all. Instead, it’s an extension of my voice. Sure it’s letter and spaces and punctuation but it’s being read in my voice. If I haven’t been clear and set the tone properly in my email so that when it’s read in my voice it’s understood as I’ve intended, I’ve essentially abused the tool – and maybe the person I’ve sent it to as well.
They say that being aware is the first step toward solving a problem, and now that I was aware, I could do something about it. My solution was a simple one. It consists of 3 rules that I apply to myself and encourage others to adopt and follow as well.
The Rules Are:
1. Read my email drafts several times before pushing the send button, making sure that the words are clear, and the voice is mine. If I’m not sure, I save it and get back to it later.
2. When I read an email that makes me mad, or that I don’t understand, or can’t follow, I employ my SUMP process and wait to respond. I figure the person who sent it didn’t mean to be misunderstood or make me mad. I find that resisting the urge to respond quickly – and maybe adding fuel to a fire that wasn’t intended to be set in the first place — always makes sense.
3. I start nearly all of my emails with “Hi (insert the person’s name), end them with “Thanks, Mike” and sprinkle please’s and thank you’s as appropriate throughout. I feel like this communicates my respect and gratitude for the person’s ability to help me, along with their time. It’s hard to fuel a fire when you’re being nice.
I’m not suggesting that my rules are the best rules, or even good rules. But I think they’ve helped me become a better emailer. And since I’m not a fan of the phone, I really need to make this email thing work for me.