What You Need to Know About the Limitations of Email

I’ve enjoyed reading the works of Daniel Goleman, the author of Social Intelligence and godfather of the field of Emotional Intelligence. He has a keen understanding of how people best connect and how relationships progress and dissolve. In a recent conference, Goleman said there’s a negativity bias to email – at the neural level. In other words, if an email’s content is neutral, we assume the tone is negative. In face-to-face conversation, the subject and its emotional content is enhanced by tone of voice, facial expressions, and nonverbal cues.  Not so with digital communication.

Goleman says technology creates a vacuum that we humans fill with negative emotions by default, and digital emotions can escalate quickly. The barrage of email can certainly fan the flames. This is why I have always believed email should only be used for information not emotion. In an effort to be productive and succinct, our communication may be perceived as clipped, sarcastic, curt or rude. Imagine the repercussions for creative collaboration.

Tools are already emerging to address this reality. See ToneCheck, a “tone spellcheck” app that scans emails for negativity and then helpfully suggests tweaks to make your communication more positive (featured in The New York Times Magazine’s annual Year in Ideas issue).

Scott McDowell suggests some simple ways to encourage positive digital communication. Here are a few best practices from his keypad:

1. Heed the negativity bias.  In this case, awareness and attention goes a long way. Consider how your communication may be perceived. Can you be more explanatory? Is your language positive as opposed to neutral?

2. Pay attention to your grammar. Since monitoring my emotional reaction to incoming and outgoing emails, I’ve noticed that in our haste, meaning is often obscured by simple grammatical confusion. “That’s not what I meant” is emblematic of digital miscommunication, and can escalate a problem quickly. Re-read your emails before sending, and make sure your intended message is being conveyed clearly. 

3. Consider emoticons. Until keyboards can actually perceive the emotional content of our digital messages (not so far off!), emoticons may be the simplest method of clarifying tone. I’ve had to let go of my own perception that emoticons are silly. They may currently be our best tool for elevating the emotional clarity of digital messages.

4. Use phrasing that suggests optionality. When gentle prodding is necessary, try using phrasing that empowers (rather than accuses) the receiver. Questions in particular tend to be better received than declaratives. To encourage follow-up on a specific task, for example, you might say something like, “I think you mentioned you’d be updating the copy on our Facebook page. I know we had an email exchange, but not sure where we ended up?”

5. Start things off on the right foot. When the news is mixed, consider leading off your message with an expression of appreciation. Then follow with the meat of your response. It could be something as simple as, “We’re off to a great start, I just have a few small tweaks I want to suggest.” Such gestures may seem like fluff, but they set the tone. Effectively saying “I appreciate the work you’ve already done…” prior to bringing the feedback that means “back to the drawing board!”

6. Jettison email… maybe. Ask yourself, “Is email the best carrier of this message?” Often a more social communication tool such as an internal project management space or messaging tool (Yammer, Action Method, or Mavenlink) can be more appropriate and serve as an emotional buffer. Reactive communication tends to be more measured in a public digital space. Plus an added bonus: knowledge sharing.

Because email lacks any ability to communicate nonverbal tones, we often have to go the extra mile to convey a positive attitude—even if it means rewriting a sentence, adding an emoticon, or offsetting bad news with a positive remark. We should use it more sparingly than perhaps we have the past. People are inundated with it so email already carries a negative overtone. Don’t use it for emotion, but for information. Even if it seems a chore, it’s time well spent.

What are some creative ways you’ve found to harness the power of email and avoid it’s limitations?


What You Need to Know About the Limitations of Email