How would you feel if you meant to email the following message to a friend, but instead (in error) sent it to an international group of professionals working in your field? This actually happened to a woman who belongs to a “listserv” group that I regularly read. Her message went something like this (names and details changed to protect the guilty):
How about July 17th for our annual bbq? My husband away on the 24th weekend, and his ex is being awful so I’ve got his kids AND mine. (Major tensions there, will tell you about that in person.) Anyway, let me know if the 17th works for you, since I know you have your own family ‘issues’ on weekends. Oh, and did you ever find out what that rash is?
Poor Ann, she must have been mortified when she realized she’d sent a personal email to the entire group. Of course, she is not alone in having clicked send in error. Most of us have experienced that sinking feeling when we realized that there was something wrong with the content of an email message, or the person to whom we sent it.
Ann’s “trigger finger” on the send button is a perfect, real-life example of how easy it is to make mistakes with email. It’s such a powerful communication tool, but some of the very things that make it so great – speed and immediacy – are also reasons it’s so easy to misuse.
The incident prompted me to come up with what I think of as The Golden Rule of Email: Think Twice Before Hitting Send! It also prompted me to come up with my second Golden Rule (if we are allowed to have more than one): Phone Instead.
Obviously you don’t need to use the phone for every bit of personal or workplace communication you have during the course of a day. However, there are times when using the phone really might be more efficient, as in the following workplace example.
It’s 4 p.m. and you’ve spent half your afternoon agonizing over the wording of an email, re-writing and tweaking it; consequently you haven’t gotten to most of your “to do” list. Finally, you send the email. By then you’ve lost valuable work time (and energy), and most of the items on your list get pushed to the next day.
Perhaps, in this instance, picking up the phone and having a conversation might have been less time-consuming. (Unless, of course, there was a pressing reason for the communication to be in the form of an email.)
The truth is we’ve become so wedded to email messaging, we forget that there are times when it’s better to invoke Golden Rule #2 — Phone Instead. Although nothing is set in stone about emailing versus phoning, I think you’ll find the following points helpful when deciding which mode of communication to use.
- When you need to relay sensitive material. Lawyers are very leery about sending emails to clients, since there are times when emails may be used as evidence in court. But it pays to bear in mind; no matter what profession you work in there is no such thing as a “safe” email. If you are communicating sensitive information, whether it’s about a business transaction, or a client, or an employee, phone instead.
- When you are meeting someone new. We’re so used to communicating via emailthat in this day and age, getting a phone call of introduction is a rare occurrence. It makes an impression that email simply cannot create. (If “cold calling” strikes fear in your heart, you may want to send an email first, then follow up with the call.)
- When you’re feeling emotional. As is often said, emails are not the best forum for communicating emotion. It’s easy for your intentions to be misread. Never email OR phone someone in a work situation when your emotions are running high; wait until you’ve cooled down. But if you do need to talk about an issue that is touchy for you, have a phone conversation where there can be give and take.
- When you don’t want a lasting record. There are times, in the workplace, when you might prefer to not “have it in writing.” For example, if you’re at the preliminary stages of a negotiation and you don’t want the wording in your emails to become the blueprint for the eventual agreement.
- When you want to get someone’s attention: If you’ve been emailing someone regularly and they are not responding, or their responses are unsatisfactory or incomplete (frequently true of Blackberry users), phoning is a better option. Even leaving a voice mail message can sometimes have a greater impact than one more email popping up in a person’s overflowing inbox.
Email can be fun, fast, and convenient. And as we all know, it’s absolutely essential in the workplace. But it’s just one of the communication tools you have at your disposal. Use it judiciously. Doing so will make for better communication with your colleagues, boss, or employees.
And remember my first Golden Rule. “Think Twice Before Sending!” Unless, of course, you don’t mind hundreds of colleagues around the world knowing about the tensions you have with your husband’s kids and his ex.