Monday, 15 November 2010

The curse of email

Overheard on the train to work this morning: "I don't like voicemail. Personally I prefer to use email. You don't have to talk to anyone and it gives you an audit trail." Of course there's nothing new in this, but whereas a year or two ago I'd have expected at least one person in the conversation to demur, in this case there was complete agreement. Now maybe this is not indicative, but my instinct tells me it is. And what a shame if so...

"You don't have to talk..."

There's a part of me that sympathises with this, as I don't really like talking on the phone. That's because the phone is an impoverished communications medium - you can't see the other person. But email is even worse because you can't even hear them and it's asynchronous, so you can't quickly adjust the conversation as you go along.

What's ironic about this is that technology is more and more enabling us to communicate visually as well as audibly: most chat clients have video, as does Skype. And of course there's the recent rash of Apple FaceTime adverts. This hasn't quite caught up with the office environment, but it'll come. Many of us now use laptops, and many modern laptops have webcams installed.

Conversely, the younger generation nowadays seem to communicate mostly via texts and Facebook, so the "art" of conversation is disappearing.

Does this mean we're turning into people who communicate more by email (and its variants) than talking? I can almost imagine a situation whereby two people at adjacent desks in an office send each other emails rather than just chat! This may seem far fetched but I well remember my two daughters doing exactly this from their adjacent bedrooms (before they went off to university).

"It gives you an audit trail"

This is even more worrying. Have we completely lost trust? Must we record everything to cover our backs? Another irony is that using email to do this could actually make things worse. I'm sure you'll have experienced, like me, complete misunderstandings arising from emails because the bare written word carries less nuance. Many's the time I've been misunderstood as being accusatory when all I've tried to do is state the facts. Had I been saying this it would be easier to pick up and immediately correct any misunderstanding. But in the asynchronous world of email this just isn't possible.

So how much more harm could be done using emails as audit trails many days (or even weeks, months, years) later when any recall of the time and context is long gone?

As an example, here's something I use in presentations to illustrate this kind of thing...

"The committee turned down the application from the students to use the hall because they advocated the use of drugs."

"The committee turned down the application from the students to use the hall because they feared the use of drugs."

Who is the "they" in these sentences? One's instinct is to say it's the students in the first and the committee in the second - with only one word's difference (yes, somewhat of a caricature, but you know what I mean). But grammatically it could be either, in both cases. What interpretation would an "auditor" make?

So let's talk

So my plea is that we must not abandon talking to each other. Before you send your next email (and the one after, and the one after that...) take a moment to think: could I not just give them a ring?

No comments:

Post a Comment