Why is e-mail evil? And why is this not just another scribe about how to write e-mails carefully? Because e-mail has replaced many forms of communication in our everyday professional life, and e-mail has the power to derail the management of an entire sponsored research project if we’re not careful. We’ve given e-mail its power without thinking. We’ve now got to decide to wield this power wisely, and to understand its effects, especially when it has legal and compliance implications. This is true both within our organizations, with subcontractors and with collaborators.
WHY IS E-MAIL SO POWERFUL?
- An e-mail message reflects as much the intention of the sender – as it does the point of view of the receiver.
This is the biggest minefield of them all. When an e-mail is opened, it can be misconstrued because the receiver is having a bad day or has misunderstood what has been written because of a poor choice of words by the sender. The method of e-mail delivery strips away all personal intent – which is why we have discovered every keyboard use for the emoticon to relate emotional intent with our messages. And still they run astray. (Not to mention what may happen when the sender fires off a hot one without thinking!)
- People from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds and life experiences use e-mail differently, yet we have few clues for understanding these differences on e-mail.
We have to approach e-mail with an absolutely open mind – because the brightest minds in science and medicine may be the most brief composers, poorest spellers, or English may not be their first language. It would be easy to draw another impression about the type of person we would be assisting from their e-mails. But we cannot.
- Organizations use e-mail differently and assign different meanings to types of e-mail messages.
Universities and large organizations use e-mail to correspond with collaborators, while smaller community organizations prefer to use e-mail to confirm interactions that have taken place either in person or on the phone. E-mail as a primary form of correspondence can be viewed as a sign of lack of trust, which can affect the relationship if the organization is participating in a sponsored project.
- People of different age groups have different comfort levels and expectations when communicating on e-mail, and may fail to recognize when using other means of communication is needed to bridge gaps in understanding.
While its important not to generalize, it is common to see entire conversations on e-mail these days. These conversations can take place among the Gen Y crowd, but busy Baby Boomers engage as well. We’re all multitasking. What tends to happen is that misunderstandings and conflicts start to occur online – and no one picks up the phone or calls for a meeting. And the limitations of an online conversation abound, and we have the problem that the misunderstandings with their compliance implications are being documented. Ultimately, this creates more work, all for the “meeting” or “conference call” we were trying to avoid!
- E-mail is immediate, auditable and can be subpoenaed.
It all comes down to this in the end. Once you push send, you cannot recall an e-mail with information that should not have been distributed. (I have seen people try to do this.) E-mails document decisions and activities within an organization and with our collaborators and subcontractors – every e-mail needs to be thought of like an external broadcast, regardless of who you are actually sending it to.It reflects you and your institution.
SO WHAT NOW? I HAVE TO USE E-MAIL. WE ALL DO.
This is the necessary part. We all have to use e-mail. It’s a necessary tool in our business communications arsenal. However, we need to be more fully aware of how to use e-mail wisely. We can’t avoid all the problems with e-mail, but we can use it better (analogous to mastering defensive driving on the road):
- When contacting someone you don’t know or corresponding with someone new – keep messages short and ensure that you include face to face communication or phone calls. Rely more on e-mail once you understand their “e-mail communication style.”
- When you’re working on a project and you encounter a difficulty with e-mail communication, pick up the phone and call the person instead of e-mailing them back.
- Learn e-mail conventions – and notice when people you correspond with don’t use them. It tells you about them and helps you understand more about the people you work with on e-mail. Give everyone you work with on e-mail the benefit of the doubt.
- Never ever respond to someone on e-mail in anger. If you’re the least bit frustrated, walk away and come back to the issue later.
- If you don’t know how to respond to an e-mail, or if the answer is too complicated and you don’t know how to explain it, that’s a good sign that the information may be sensitive and it probably should be discussed before being written down.
- It’s very easy to miss words on a screen when you are reading an e-mail. If you want to make sure you are understanding the information someone has said to you, read it to yourself. Likewise, if you want to make sure that your e-mail is grammatically correct, or written in the best way, read your outgoing e-mail to a colleague before you send it and get feedback.
When you think about it, a quick phone call might be the easiest way to take care of something after all.