“I was discussing the use of email and how impersonal it can be; how people will now email someone across the room rather than go and talk to them.” ~ Margaret J. Wheatley, writer and management consultant
If there was one area where I got hit hard at the beginning of my tenure as school leader, it was communication. The first complaint related to my style, which was seen as being too impersonal. I was heavily involved with my BlackBerry, texting and e-mailing regularly (even in meetings and while sitting in on classroom observations) to reach out or respond to various constituents. Though my objectives were lofty (I wanted to as readily accessible and responsive as possible), I was seen by some as being too digitized and distracted. This was, in part, because my predecessor rarely e-mailed. Nor did he text much or own a smartphone.
We all know the reasons that we type so many of our correspondences instead of write them down on a piece of paper. It’s often faster, it’s neater, and it can easily be saved and categorized for future reference without paper-sifting and clutter. Electronic communications can be shared far and wide and allow us to reach out and reply when it works for us, not having to be concerned as much with the other’s schedule and readiness to communicate.
Despite the many benefits of e-communication, it can also presents some meaningful downsides. These include:
Misinterpretation. So much of the way that we normally share information and ideas is based on nonverbal communication. Inflections, hand gestures, facial tone, body positioning and the like say so much about how each party is receiving and responding to each other, as well as their passion for the information and ideas being shared. Without hearing a voice or seeing nonverbal cues, people struggle to properly discern the intended meaning, tone, value and emphasis.
A study by Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago sought to determine how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. The results of their study was that not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but recipients also overrate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.
Impersonal touch. No matter how thoughtfully an email is crafted, its digital nature makes it feel distant and impersonal. You simply cannot compare the feel of an e-mail with that of a face-to-face chat or a phone call.
Raising the temperature. For most of us, distance makes it feel safer to “yell” or to be critical. We can more easily muster up the gumption to criticize when we are typing words on our personal keyboards than when we have to look someone in the eye and share our feelings. Furthermore, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.
You can’t get it back. The quick nature of e-mail makes it easy to forget that our words actually matter and can really come back to bite us. (I suggest that you never send any e-mail with potentially negative implications without first showing it to one or two trusted colleagues). Not only must we worry about how our message will be processed “in the moment,” but there is a chance that it will be forwarded or printed for others to see as well
Keeping your distance. Perhaps worst of all, e-mail, IM and other e-communiqués maintain distance between colleagues, sometimes even when only a wall or cubicle separate them physically. It’s often easier to fire off a response than to get up and share a few words. You may also want to not disturb your busy co-workers, especially if they are in another conversation or on the phone. While all of that is laudable, it’s important to not fall into the habit of remaining distant. Personal rapport keeps relationships strong, even in the face of conflict.
As our jobs involve working with and getting things done with people, we have to be able to build healthy relationships. This requires a healthy dose of ongoing, in person interactions, to get to know each other in real terms and how we each tick.