Whom Do We Thank (and Curse) for Email?

Edition: July 2002 - Vol 10 Number 07
Article#: 1283
Author: John R. Graham

Email may be the most significant communications advance since the telephone, having totally changed the way we exchange information.

How dependent are we on it? It's no exaggeration to suggest that if email were taken away, business would come to a halt and we would be catapulted into a worldwide depression.

Certainly, the promise of junk email is dazzling! How can anyone resist the endless possibilities:

• “Eliminate your debt.” The dream comes true.
• “Burn your own DVD videos!” Eat your heart out, Blockbuster.
• “Stop hair loss this week!” Another dream comes true.
• “You have been chosen…” What am I going to get for free?
• “You can own an adult web site and make huge $$$.” So exciting, daring, and naughty.
• “Win a Mercedes!” Just what I've been waiting for.
• “FREE Viagra.” Maybe email is not so bad after all.
• “Reach 1 million prospects.” Just think of all the money that will come rolling in.
• “Get two FREE airline tickets!” That vacation is in reach, finally.
• “Bridging the gap.” I wasn't aware of one, but now I'm concerned.
While email technology deserves praise, the abuses are just as notable. For example, the quantity of junk email explodes faster than a pair of rabbits. And there's no end in sight. For all these reasons, we need to consider the impact of email as a form of communication. While its benefits are enormous, its negative aspects are worth noting too.

1. Email tends to encourage interpersonal dueling. Because people often “dash off” email messages with less thought than they would give to a letter, their messages can be curt or even misleading. At times, both.

One manager received an email from a client who had received the wrong email attachment. “I asked for this last week.” Reading between the line, the implication was clear: The sender was irritated, perhaps even outraged. While the attachment was incorrect, he had “forgotten” that certain work was necessary before the document could be sent to him.

Perhaps because senders tend to use as few words as possible, emailing tends to encourage abruptness, something most people have learned to avoid in face-to-face or even telephone conversations. And since the recipient is unseen, it is easier to be blunt.

2. Email often confuses action with act. Notable changes in communication began taking place with the introduction of the fax machine. Like leaving a note or mailing a letter, faxing only separated the message sender from the recipient. But unlike them, it was almost instant. Fax messages could be dashed off and delivered in a few moments to another office or country. Voice mail escalated the process even further, allowing people to pick up the phone and “just say it,” often with minimal thought. Email has ratcheted up the process even further.

Email has encouraged some people to erroneously believe sending a message is all that's required. In other words, sending an email message is confused with real action, such as resolving a problem. When asked about a particular situation, we often hear people say, “I sent her an email,” as if sending the message absolves the sender from further responsibility.

3. Email seems to encourage third-rate thinking. Half the email messages don't make sense. How many times a day do you hit the “reply” button and ask the sender what he or she meant?

Because it is designed to be quick, email seems to foster off-the-cuff, shoot-from-the-hip thinking. Or more to the point, a lack of thought. Whatever comes into someone's mind at the moment is sent. Out of sight––and gone! It's as if getting the message sent is more important than the message itself. If this sounds crazy, just read the emails you received – and sent – yesterday.

4. Email often encourages “dumping” on the people we need to help us. More dumping occurs on Friday afternoon than at any other time, though the end of any weekday is still bad. And then there's the day before a three-day holiday. These are the times for “email dumping,” and it has quickly become an essential business skill. Get it off your desk. Don't get caught on Monday with someone saying, “Hey Toni, did you take care of the Anderson job?” And you say, “Don't worry about it. I sent it on to Joe.” Don't get caught with the ball in your court. That spells trouble. And email is the answer.

What makes “dumping” insidious is that the messages are often incomplete. The administrative assistant sends the printer an order by email––but half the specs are missing. Who cares?

It's gone until next week! Unfortunately, “dumping” encourages miscommunication, mistakes, and a loss of time.

5. Email can depersonalize communication. Email changes the nature of communication. For example, we say things in an email message that we probably would not say either on the phone or face-to-face. It's not uncommon to open an email and discover something like this: “I need the job done tomorrow before 9:00 a.m.” Now, that may not be a problem most of the time, but generally, this type of message involves a complicated task. And the request would never be expressed so blatantly by phone, for example, where a sense of negotiation would take place.

Being warm and fuzzy all the time is far from necessary. In fact, being a little less “chatty” is often in order. At the same time, email makes it easier to depersonalize communication and to disregard the recipient.

6. Email seems to encourage stupid behavior. It's far easier to be stupid with email than it is with junk snail mail, broadcast faxes, or telemarketing. It takes extra effort, of course, but it seems as if a lot of people are determined to prove the point. The culprit, of course, is price. Anyone with a computer, an email address list and a telephone line salivates at the thought of reaching a quarter of a million “prospects” on the cheap.

To reach so many people so fast and for so little is almost too good to be true. Although those sending you the 159 emails that greet you on Monday morning don't seem to realize it, it is too good to be true. They can save you from bankruptcy or help you get there. They will increase your bust size or your virility, depending on who you are. Someone you don't even know is waiting to pay your bills. And a free vacation is just a click away. Talk about heaven on earth.

With emailing so cheap, everyone comes out of the woodwork at midnight. How could anyone be so stupid as to expect it to work? It's not surprising that all this is happening. “Blast faxing” has slowed down with the explosion of broadcast emailing.

Email is an incredibly effective and efficient form of communication, which deserves the same high standards as any thoughtful letter or memo. To abuse it is to abuse those who receive our emails.

John R. Graham
is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. Mr. Graham is the author of The New Magnet Marketing. Mr. Graham writes for a variety of publications and speaks on business, marketing and sales topics for company and association meetings. He is the recipient of an APEX Grand Award in writing. He can be contacted at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170 (617-328-0069; fax 617-471-1504); j_graham@grahamcomm.com). The company's website is www.grahamcomm.com.