E-mail is a great communicator, but it tirns IT staff into cubicle potatoes

Think for a moment. When was the last time you saw the other corner of your company’s office. I mean, when did you last get up from your chair and go across your office to ask someone a question, rather than e-mailing him or her.

I know. E-mail is quicker, it’s more immediate. You ask your question, get your answer and, boom, you’re off to the races. But I would bet that for every e-mail that works (wonderfully) that way, there are five more that don’t work so well.

Sometimes the answer you receive is incomplete or isn’t the one you were looking for, so it takes a couple of more e-mail messages back and forth to get the correct one. Or perhaps the person you queried is away and you should have contacted his or her temporary replacement, but you don’t find this out until you’ve sent another message or two and then finally in frustration walked across the office to get your answer in person, which is probably what you should have done in the first place.

Other times the e-mail medium only serves to complicate the issue. As many of us have discovered, only a world master at satire could successfully get a tongue-in-cheek message across via e-mail without it being misinterpreted as plain speaking, or worse, sarcasm. But that doesn’t stop many people from trying to do their best Jonathan Swift imitation to make their point in an e-mail message.

Then there’s the language and syntax of e-mail itself. E-mail is most effective when it’s to the point and uncluttered by unnecessary digressions. If it takes you 10 minutes to compose your question, it may take 10 minutes for the recipient to draft a reply, which means what should have been a five-minute discussion has turned into a 20-minute exercise. (FYI, research has shown that people typically speak at a rate of about 150 words per minute, whereas an average typist can accomplish 45 to 50 words per minute.)

When used properly, one-sentence e-mail messages pare your question down to its most understandable form, and usually elicit the clearest responses. But be prepared for people to consider you rude (read acerbic) if all you do is fire off terse messages to people, demanding answers to questions.

Which brings us to the whole e-mail syntax debate. To capitalize or not to capitalize, to punctuate or not, to include a salutation or not, to sign off with your name or not. The list goes on. The point is that everybody eventually develops their own way of composing e-mail messages. But it’s not possible for everybody’s e-mail style to mesh with everybody else’s. At least in a face-to-face conversation, there’s a better chance of each person’s message being heard.

Now some would argue that’s not true at all. Some would say that an e-mail message can better cut through the white noise caused by general office chatter and small talk around the water cooler. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t we all be working harder to create effective verbal communication among co-workers?

After all, why do we all come to work? Is it to sit in our offices and cubicles immobile at our computers, gathering information, analysing information, forwarding information to others, never to walk across to someone else’s cube and talk about the information we’ve processed?

Try it sometime. You may find you learn something from hearing that other person’s opinion. If nothing else, the exercise will do you good.