Here’s an interesting story I stumbled upon while reading the site charlotteobserver.com entitled “Insulting Email and Vanishing Comments.” Apparently, a school board member responded to a constituent by email and violated the important rule of “reading your response from the perspective of the recipient.” Now, that school board member is having to endure a situation where the parent is sharing the email with everyone.
Those who still hold on to some kind of belief that email is like a phone call are mistaken. Email is its own media, and it has its own characteristics and features that should guide how we use it. For example, if you respond to someone by phone, there’s the opportunity for immediate feedback on what you’re saying. If someone is offended by what you say, they may immediately let you know by their angered voice. With email, there’s just words, and words convey tone loudly and clearly. What I might consider to be a benign response to a question, in fact, might be considered to be sarcastic or flippant. And there’s other differences as well. The truth is, we need to abide by some important rules when responding to email. Here’s some of my own.
1. Never send an email when highly emotional. I’ve heard several people reiterate this one to me over the past few years and it makes sense. Often, I’ve received an email that makes me angry, or makes me want to pound out a rebuke and send it. That is not good practice for obvious reasons. Our emotions guide our word choices, and those words convey tone. Wait until the emotion has subsided.
2. If you type an email in a fit of passion, save it as a draft and return to it later when you are calmer. There is no rule that says an email has to be responded to immediately. If you just can’t help yourself and you have to type out that response, go ahead and do so, just don’t send it until you are more level-headed and be sure re-read it with rule 3 in mind. Once the email is sent, it can’t be retrieved.
3. When you re-read your response, read it from the perspective of the recipient and the public. Reading your response from the perspective of the recipient makes sense. This will help detect those subtle message tones conveyed by the language and words you’re using. Reading from the perspective of the public makes sense too, sense technically, that email response might be considered public record. Or, it might just get forwarded to someone else. Before you know it, you have a public relations problem with email bouncing around every where.
No doubt email is an important way to make contact, and contrary to some of the headlines I read a few years ago, I do not thing email is going any where. It is part of our culture and way of life. It can be an excellent way to communicate, but it requires us to be vigilant about what we say in ways that might not have existed in the past.