I have a reminder in my Outlook calendar for 9 AM Monday-Friday. The action? “Delete 100 emails.”
You would think that after a week—two tops–I could delete the reminder, as my inbox would have surely been brought to heel by then. Not so, I’m afraid. When people ask what I do for a living, I am tempted to say, “I compose and respond to email.” It can feel like that is a job in and of itself.
That being said, I–like so many other members of Generation X–can’t imagine life without it.
I remember in 1991 when I was a freshman in college and my math professor was explaining to us the concept of “electronic mail”, and how he was able to correspond with a colleague in Japan in almost real-time. We all thought that was pretty cool, and when he set up the class with our own email accounts (used only within a closed system he built for our class) it quickly became my preferred communication method. I could take time to compose my thoughts and questions, choosing my words carefully. I remember the excitement of seeing items in my inbox. By the time I graduated college and landed my first real job, Lotus Notes was in wide use, Outlook was invented and I signed up for my free Hotmail account*.
Generation X remembers life without email, and also the huge and almost immediate impact its widespread use had on the way we worked and communicated. New and better tools have since come along, but GenX hasn’t lost its affinity for the medium. It’s the perfect tool for a self-sufficient, independent, pragmatic generation, and we seem to have a sense of ownership about it. It was “our thing”. But if we’ve learned anything over the last three decades, it’s that email isn’t perfect and there are many good reasons not to use it:
Giving negative feedback
A drawback of email (or any written communication really) is the lack of social cues and non-verbal expression. That makes it difficult for the receiver to comprehend the intended tone and for the sender to check for the receiver’s reaction and understanding. Consider also the email negativity bias. Renowned leadership expert and psychologist Daniel Goleman argues that if the sender feels positive about an email, then the receiver usually feels neutral. And if the sender feels neutral about the message, then the receiver typically feels negative about it. In other words, neutral is as good as it gets on the other end of that email, so choose wisely.
Long or very complex messages
You know that person—the one who clobbers you with a wall of text every time you open their emails. You audibly groan when you see them in your inbox. Composing a lengthy missive is a sure way not to get read. Edit for brevity whenever possible, and if it’s not, consider sending the information as an attachment to a short email that has clear instructions and information about the attached file.
When a face-to-face conversation or a phone call will do:
I hate talking on the phone, both at work and at home. But I hate a crowded inbox way more. As I delete those 100 emails each day, I notice how many threads look like this: simple question>answer>simple follow up question>answer>affirmation. That chain of six emails could have been a 10-second conversation.
When email isn’t your receiver’s preference
As a manager, you need to know your team members’ communication styles and preferences. Managing a multi-generational team? Face to face meetings might work better for Boomers and even your Millennial employees, who value high-touch interactions. Get to know what allows them to do their best work and deliver on that. It’s your job as a boss.
I’m sure Millennials and GenZ feel about email the way that I feel when I see an actual paper memorandum: OMG who still uses this? But email isn’t going away any time soon. It’s still an efficient way to communicate to many people at once. It’s great for sharing straight facts and positive news. And—for good or bad—it’s a written record.
So while this GenXer is mindful of the pros and cons of the medium, I, like many of my GenX brethren, still prefer to communicate in this way above most others.
If you need me I’ll be cleaning out my inbox.
*Fun fact—that original Hotmail account is still in use today. I use it mostly to see the look of horror on cashiers’ faces when they ask me for my email when I am trying to check out. It’s where online coupons and promotional newsletters go to die.