Brenda Knights Narrative

Email is terribly misused. We’re inundated with so many emails that people’s attention spans are not there. If you’re writing a lengthy email, no one is going to read it. They don’t have the time. Sometimes, there are reasons to send an email, such as documenting something officially, but it’s often not effective for communicating.

The one thing that drives me nuts in an office environment, and this is getting worse, is that people aren’t getting up from their desks and talking to their neighbours. I question whether that’s efficient. I think it’s a better use of time to get up from your desk, talk to your coworker and resolve the issue. If a coworker’s busy and you can’t drop in, you might send an email and ask if they have a couple of minutes to talk today. Schedule a time if the person’s really busy. It doesn’t have to be a long meeting. If the issue is really important to the point that your email is becoming long, you need to talk to the person. Things get misinterpreted or you might not have all of the information, but a quick discussion can resolve it.

I also see people making the mistake of sending email when they’re upset or angry. Even if you’re trying really hard not to sound upset, your coworker’s going to pick up on that and your words will come across as offensive. Your coworkers will miss what you were trying to say and focus on you being rude. It’s like driving a car. When we hide inside our car, we can turn into these awful beings. We can become angry with someone for cutting us off, but in person we’re less likely to do that. Speaking face-to-face can keep you accountable to good behaviour.

When there’s written communication, there’s such a huge chance of miscommunication. If there’s a difficult conversation, have it face-to-face so it doesn’t get misconstrued. Because once it’s misconstrued, it’s hard to come back from that. Those relationships become damaged and now there’s mistrust. Repairing that mistrust is so difficult. You don’t always know how people will interpret your writing, so before you write, think about whether you really need to be writing.

From a legal perspective, the other factor is that in many organizations, whatever you write can be accessed by the company. The company owns those emails. The company computer is their asset, the email is their asset, so you could be putting the company at risk or putting something in writing that might embarrass you down the road. What you write could be subpoenaed or someone could file a Freedom of Information request. Sometimes we don’t emphasize just how high the stakes are in written communication. We put people in these scenarios where they don’t realize that they could hurt themselves or the company by what they’re putting out there.

Whether it’s social media, writing something in a grant, writing an email, writing a text, I always think to myself, what if someone else reads that? What would they be thinking of me? How would they be interpreting it? One way or another, that message could get out. You need to be really, really careful with what you put in writing and what you share.

When I worked at a bus company, I oversaw bus drivers. They’re working in the field, so I didn’t see them day-to-day. My boss was at head office, so I didn’t see him regularly. But if there was something important, he would come out and see me. I knew that the very fact that he took time to see me meant that it was important. Without him having to tell me it was important; I knew by his actions. That message had way more meaning than if he blasted me an email. He took time out of his day to come and talk to me.

So, I applied the same thing to the drivers. If I got a commendation praising a driver, I could send them a letter in the mail saying thanks for doing a great job. They would open the letter, maybe feel good. Sure. But if I took time out of my day to go to the workplace, show up on the bus and say that I stopped by to give them this commendation, that has more meaning. Coming out to the bus and giving them that praise face-to-face reinforced positive behaviour and made them more likely to repeat it. It stuck with them, as opposed to getting a letter in the mail, which might seem insincere. Our days get busy. It’s hard. But taking time with your employees and making room to acknowledge and celebrate them will lead to more positive behaviours.


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Business Writing For Everyone Copyright © 2021 by Arley Cruthers is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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