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The Perils of E-mail
By Peter de Jager   Printer Friendly Version

It's easier to sleep in a hammock full of cats, than it is to hold meaningful and civilized conversations via E-mail. At least, that's the impression you get if you watch a large enough sample of E-Mail.

Somewhere between the art of conversation and the act of E-mail, we lose our patience, tolerance, perspective and most importantly our sense of humor.

The result? We ruffle the feathers of our peers, rub the fur of management the wrong way, act like foxes in a hen house, and generally forget we're human beings.

E-mail is different, difficult and demanding. It's not talking by typing. When we talk we repeat ourselves to clarify our meaning. When we type we remove repetitions because we were told never to use the same word more than once in a paragraph.

Repetition in writing is a no-no. It's a no-no to repeat yourself in writing. See? Whenever we see blatant repetition, we cringe. Even though it serves a very useful and accepted role in everyday speech.

This lack of repetition also allows ambiguity to creep into our messages. When we repeat an idea, we reinforce meaning. Without repetition, we don't know if the writer really meant what they wrote.

Lack of repetition also means that we don't know what is important to the writer. Repetition serves to highlight important points and issues. When we repeat a particular point, it is obvious to the listener that that particular point is important to our argument.

Another aspect of writing and speaking is that it is difficult (if not impossible sometimes) to put our exact meaning and intent into mere words. This difficulty is aggravated by the speed of E-mail. We tend to fire off responses without really considering our words and what they might convey to the reader.

Our typing and grammar skills (rather, our lack of these skills) adds yet another layer of confusion to E-mail. We all make typos and grammatical errors, which is why editors make a living. ""Nothing should see print until it's edited"" is a pretty good policy.

E-mail ignores the concept of proofreading.... most people mail their first draft of a note, without ever even reading it. Is it any wonder that Flaming (the act of heated written abuse in response to some transgression, real or imagined) has become a national pastime?

E-mail is new. We learnt how to talk on our own because it's built into our programming somehow. We were taught how to read and write, and for the most part we practice a lot of reading, but little writing.

For many people, E-mail is their only form of writing, other than shopping lists, yet nobody teaches us how to write short electronic messages, which resist misunderstanding.

All of this: the lack of repetition, the difficulty of writing what we mean, typos, the errors in grammar, the lack of proofreading, our lack of practice in writing short, concise notes etc. etc. results in E-mail which seldom, if ever, contains within it, the true intent and meaning of the writer. Then why do we respond to E-mail as if it did?

Most of our communication problems in E-mail result from us responding to it as if it truly conveyed what the writer meant to say. We respond with notes beginning ""You said..."" rather than ""I understood your note to mean..."" To communicate better in E-mail keep in mind just two things:

  1. What you think they meant, is likely not what they meant to write.
  2. If someone mis-reads what you wrote, it's likely because you mis-wrote what you meant.

1995, Peter de Jager speaks on Managing the Impact of Change...Technological or otherwise.


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