When is it best not to email?

Have you ever communicated a message that was completely misinterpreted by the intended recipient?

Typically, we communicate by face-to-face exchanges (video conference, Skype); verbal exchanges (by telephone); or by written communication (email, hand-written letters, postings and exchanges on social media).

When we communicate, the message we send comprises up to 3 elements (depending on our mode of communication), each contributing to the overall meaning of our message:

  • the words we use;
  • our tonality- the pitch, rhythm, volume of our verbal message; and
  • our physiology- the gestures, posture, facial expressions – our “body language.”

Studies show that in face-to-face communication (when we communicate non-technical information, such as an idea or an opinion) as much as 55% of the “meaning” in our message is conveyed through our physiology or body language. 38% of the meaning is from our tonality – how we express the words; and only 7% by the actual words themselves).

Changing any of the three elements of our communication can significantly alter the meaning received and understood. When we have modes of communication that miss some of the elements (e.g. phone communication has no body language element), the scope for miscommunication increases – as fewer components of the sender’s original message are sent or received.

An exercise: repeat the following sentence out loud seven times, but place the emphasis on a different word in the sentence each time:

He said that she stole the bag.

Notice anything…?

The meaning of the sentence changes subtly with the different emphases: same words, but different tonality providing different meaning.

Imagine if we had emailed the sentence in the earlier exercise.  Although we write our email using words and the tonality in our heads, only the words are sent in the email. The recipient will read the words with their own tonality, which may be different from the tonality of the sender.  Consequently the perceived message of the email recipient can be very different to the intention of the sender.

When using email, you (or someone you know) might have experienced one or more of the following:

  • Sent an email intending to show your understanding of a person’s situation in (what you thought was) an empathetic, constructive way; only to get a blunt response, where the recipient has taken offence.
  • Received what felt like a curt email, which on following up (by phone) turned out not to be the case at all – just that the sender is a two finger typist who was in a hurry.
  • Or found yourself trying to explain something in an email starting with ‘I am not sure I effectively communicated my real meaning’; ‘it looks like I have confused/upset/annoyed you; this was not my intent.’

The chances are that you have (or your friend has) then had to needlessly invest extra time and energy to repair the relationship to recover the situation, instead of moving things forwards.

Email is an effective communication tool for sharing basic information.  But, if we want to express an idea, share a concept, feeling, or perspective; where practicable, it’s best to visit the person or pick up the phone.

Roger Plahay

Roger Plahay

Sandler Training in Bath & Bristol A Chartered Accountant by profession, Roger spent his whole career sceptical of salespeople, sales methods and has the firm belief that 99% of sales training simply does not work. He leads effective Sales Development and Business Growth for ambitious business professionals by helping them break the conventional rules that constrain them and win more business.

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  1. Ray James /

    I have been working in marking field from last 6 years, everyday I meet many different-different peoples and talk with them also sometimes I need to talk with them via mail, but from my point of view visit the peoples is the best and perfect way to communicate with them. Thanks for your valuable words.

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