Why Your Lazy E-Mail Habit Is Bad for Business

Put the Human Element Back Into Communicating, Please

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It's a common situation in any office -- especially for those in the communications industry: You communicate something (quite clearly, you think). The person with whom you're communicating receives the information (quite clearly, they think). And neither one of you is right.

Fact is, there is very often a big gap between what is intended and received. The "evolution" of "communications" technology, namely e-mail and text messages, is baiting us with apparent connectivity, only to lead us down a path of confusion, frustration and the belief that we have actually communicated at all.

Of course, all communication, even in its purest, face-to-face and focused form, falls prey to the imperfections of emotion, situation, distraction and interpretation. So we're talking about a matter of degree here. But the big question is: Are we aware of the limitations of the communication methods we're using? And do we correct for them?

Avoiding interaction
But wait. What if the whole idea behind these "communication tools" is not to communicate? Say, for example, you don't want to deal with a certain person -- maybe it's an account team member or even a client. They ask you to lunch. Spend actual time with this person? No, thanks. But you feel like you have to respond. So you don't call back; you text. You never have to interact with the person at all. We used to do this by calling people at 12:30, when we knew they were out to lunch. But the texting thing is so much cleaner.

There's a second, more-devious effectiveness to this type of communication. Say we want to test the waters -- try out a situation without laying it on the line. See whether a client is around, if a date is available, without being personally accountable. Hey, if the message isn't well-received, we can say they misunderstood -- after all, this is an imperfect form of communication, right?

It's certainly lazier -- which perhaps is the real point. The communication hierarchy goes something like this: face, voice, e-mail, text. Top to bottom, each requires less focused commitment, involves less interactivity and includes fewer of the core cues of communication: facts and feelings.

In any office environment, these communication tools are designed to speed the transfer of data and information among teams. Very few duties require face-to-face communication anymore. Sadly, more often than not, these tools actually create distance and minimize personal accountability.

Communication crutch
Communicating simply via electronic means takes the human element out of communication. You begin to lose track of your co-workers' quirks, tones and subtleties. Things that were meant to be funny come off as rude or insensitive. You start living in a fantasy world of e-communication where most times, written communications are used to cover your own backside or document that you held up your part of the work chain.

How often have you seen this happen? A client sends feedback on new creative. Comments in e-mail form are often seen as curt and sometimes harsh. Without that interaction when the client is explaining her comments, the smallest, most benign suggestion can escalate to a crisis before you know it. And soon you'll assume the client wants to change the whole creative direction rather than simply make a minor tweak.

Unfortunately, face time is usually reserved for big pitches, crisis situations (caused by communication misfires, maybe?), and the rare work friend with whom we truly share and communicate.

To really succeed on all levels of communication with your co-workers, boss or employees, stop for a minute, get up, walk down the hall and just say hello. Then truly listen to what they have to say. Real communication takes effort, but it's vital. After all, when we in the communication industry fail to communicate even among ourselves, how can we expect to effectively communicate with any other audience?

Michael Duffy is creative director at Starmack Group, an advertising agency in San Diego.
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