You may get the impression from the title that I hate email. Actually, it’s a love/hate relationship. One thing that I get frustrated by, as I’m sure you do, is the sheer volume of email that I receive at work. If I’m not keeping up throughout the day, I’ll have about 75 to 100 emails – and I’m pretty diligent about unsubscribing and blocking senders, so there’s another 25+ in my spam!  But given the “real time”, information rich business world we live in, I can’t even imagine how I could possibly do my job without email. Which is kind of strange given that during a big chunk of my career there was no such thing!  Now we all get texts, and there are intracompany or work group instant messaging platforms, but email is still the workhorse of business communications. What I really want to focus on is that email is a communication tool, and like any tool there is a right time to use it and a wrong time.

Recognizing the right time to use email is easy. If you need to disseminate information, email can be the perfect tool. It’s efficient and exacting. And you can get lots of info to lots of people in one fell swoop. I think we all get that.

However, because it becomes our go-to tool for communicating in the office, we often overlook its downsides – it limits collaboration and can strain relationships instead of fostering them. Specifically, I believe it should be avoided when you want to convey an opinion, ask a challenging question, or touch on anything controversial or that could be misinterpreted. In these cases it’s equivalent to pounding in a screw with a hammer – the wrong tool leading to a potentially bad outcome.

It’s easy to accidentally get caught up in email cross fire. Someone emails a group of people on a matter, you hit “reply” or worse yet “reply all” and weigh in with your opinion. Now you have to wonder what the group is going to do with it.  More often than not, start a lengthy, disjointed, and often unresolved back and forth discussion. Even if it’s just one individual, you can end up batting things back and forth like a tennis match.  Not exactly a productive, collaborative interaction…

I know it’s cliché, but email contains no voice inflection or tone (unless you use a lot of emoticons J!) If asking someone about a decision they made you may type, “What were you thinking?” How does the recipient perceive that? Is it a simple request to gain understanding - “Please explain your rational?” Or does it read like, “What were you thinking?” you idiot! Or similarly, “What were you thinking?” you poor fool. It’s hard to know with no voice inflection.

Besides no voice inflection, which you can at least get on a voice mail, there is no body language or no facial expressions like you have in a face-to-face conversation. A huge benefit to either in person or phone is the ability to ask clarifying questions and have an actual conversation. This is so key to good communication as it allows you to avoid making assumptions – a huge problem in many relationships.

One more suggestion, never email angry! It’s nearly impossible to undo an email. It just sits in your recipient’s email box, for them to read over and over. If you need to work through something with someone, pick up the phone, don’t send an email.

While this may not be new news, it bears repeating!  Before you take the fast efficient route of shooting off an email, I’d encourage you to pause and make sure you are using the right tool for the job. Bottom line - if you are providing factual information, email is a great business tool. If it’s more nuanced or complicated than that, here’s the math: face-to-face > phone conversation > voice mail > email. Choose wisely grasshopper.