Friday, 15 October 2010

Don't use email

Yes, I mean it.

Sometimes email is the VERY worst means of communication. Of course it’s fine for most purposes, for inviting people to meetings, for telling your boss or your tutor you’ll have your assignment in on time, for sending pictures of your kids to your distant relatives but it’s also a tool that can be extremely dangerous.

The problem is that unlike a face-to-face meeting and on the phone, you have no clues about how someone FEELS when you read or write an email. When someone is standing in front of you or you can hear their voice there are hundreds of little clues you can pick up on to tell if they’re happy, sad, pretending to be happy but really sad, depressed and putting on a brave face, any of the thousand emotions we can show. Just as dogs can smell things with exceptional acuteness we great apes are masterful at reading expressions. But only when we can see or hear the other person. That’s not possible with email.

A reader got in touch recently to tell us about a problem she’d experienced with roof trusses. Not the most exciting of subjects I know but the email correspondence she had with the supplier certainly was thrilling to read. It was a classic example of rudeness escalation.

She started with some rather forthright comments about his company’s “dishonesty and lack of professionalism” and asked for the problems to be resolved urgently. The first email from the supplier was actually very restrained and promised to get to the bottom of the situation.

Then it got serious. Two days later he emailed her saying:
“Your carpenter is lying about all those things he has been telling you. Your carpenter is the one who does not know how to put up trusses ans its your fault because you are the one who employed an incompetent person who is taking chances with your roof (…) But please do not insult the credibility of my company because professional people do not do that.”
She then accused him of being unprofessional again and of being arrogant so he accused various people of lying, being incompetent and suggested she was trying to intimidate him. He also wrote the hilarious line: “Problems can not disappear by sweeping them under the carpenter.”

My point is that things wouldn’t have gone so far and become so inflamed if these conversations had taken place over the phone, or better still face-to-face over a cup of tea. The nature of email makes it much more likely for tempers to flare.

Very sensibly the reader decided not to make things worse. She told us “I’m actually very angry at this moment and have decided against replying his e-mail”. A very wise move. This is the time to put the kettle on and chill out.

That’s perhaps another of those Consumer Watchdog conflict resolution tips. Put the kettle on, make a pot of tea and chill out before answering an angry email. I did that recently, for 4 days in fact. One of the emails in the long-running Hyundai Rustenburg story pissed me off SO much I decided it would be best if I had a tea-drinking marathon instead. Eventually I calmed down and was able to show some restraint in my response to this incompetent, discourteous, disrespectful and utterly horrible dealership. The ones who might be doing the same to us now. They no longer reply to our emails.

It’s not exactly comparable but a few years ago we had an argument by fax with the Holiday Club, technically a company called Suntide, about the nature of their lifetime contracts, the ones that need special dispensation from the Pope or the Secretary General of the United Nations to cancel. That also got rather out of hand, with the faxes from their lawyer getting longer and longer and, no doubt, increasingly expensive. Eventually, we all decided to get together face-to-face for a cuppa to talk it through. Suddenly things became a lot more civil. Nobody threatened anyone, we were all grown ups and we parted no further forward but at least they saved some money in legal fees.

But it’s more than just anger management that email undermines. It’s spelling. No matter how carefully I proof-read these articles I write for Mmegi, I have learned to print them first before sending them in. I find a spelling or grammatical mistake every single time in the printed version that I hadn’t seen on screen. How professional do you think it looks if you send a business email that contains mistakes?

Finally there’s all the silliness email inspires. Many companies these days put mandatory disclaimers at the bottom of all company emails. Some of them are fairly sensible, saying for instance that anything written in an email won’t ever constitute a legally binding contract. Fair enough. However others go a bit mental.

One company I know doesn’t even publish the disclaimer in the email. Instead it gives a link to a web site which says that the email:
“is meant solely for the intended recipient. Access to this email by anyone else is unauthorised. If you are not the intended recipient, any disclosure, copying, distribution or any action taken or omitted in reliance on this, is prohibited and may be unlawful.”
What utter crap. If this is to be believed, if they send you an email and you forward it to me then I’m a criminal? Let me make it perfectly plain to anyone reading this who might be tempted to email me. Once it’s in my computer it’s MINE, OK? I can print it, delete it, publish it, make love to it, I can do anything I want to it because it now belongs to me.

If you have anything to say then please email me. Just check your spelling first.

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