Everything is quickly becoming digital, but are certain conversations best left for a phone call or in person meeting? It’s easy to see how communication can become misinterpreted when taking place via email or text messaging. These environments leave little room for nuanced expression and leave things like body language and tone of voice to the imagination. In my experience, critical business communication should not be conducted through an exchange of emails. One of my friends used to say, “Email stands for electronic mail. It’s supposed to take the place of writing a letter, not verbal communication.”
There’s a very funny episode on Key & Peele that completely nails how we miscommunicate using technology. If you go on YouTube and type in, “Key & Peele – Text Message Confusion” you can watch it. Please note that there is some inappropriate langue so if you’re easily offended or at work, I wouldn’t recommend watching it.
How many times has someone sent you an email, you thought, “What a jerk!” and you talked to them and thought they were the nicest person? We’ve probably all been there, as certain elements of emotion just don’t make their way across an email chain. I can tell you it happens to me at least once every couple of weeks and at one point in time, I was on the other side of the table.
In my younger days I landed one of the biggest accounts in the industry, which was over $1 million in sales annually. After closing this account, an email exchange almost lead to me blowing it.
I was emailing with the Vice President of the company, and hadn’t heard back from her within 48 hours. This was particularly unusual with this particular client, as she was typically prompt with her response. I decided to give her a call to follow up. When she picked up I said “Good morning, Kristi! I wanted to make sure that you received my email.” Her response was, “Yes, I did and I am in shock.”
I remember my heart dropping to the floor. In my mind at that moment, I was meticulously recounting my steps thinking, “I know I didn’t send anything stupid. What if I accidentally sent her something that was meant for somebody else?”
She continued, “Based off getting to know you, I was really surprised to hear you talk like that.” I had absolutely no clue what she was talking about, and where these concerns were coming from.
After going back through my emails, I didn’t find anything that I didn’t mean to send. I read through my email to her, and still didn’t know how we had gotten here. I finally said, “Kristi, I am so sorry if I did anything to offend you but I am not sure which email you’re referring to.”
She explained the email, and afterwards I apologized at least 10 times letting her know that I had no intentions of ever being disrespectful. I hung up the phone, and kept reading the email, still confused as to how my words could be misinterpreted in that way. Looking for some clarity, I forwarded the email in question to a couple of friends and even they didn’t understand what had offended her.
Looking back, I don’t blame Kristi for interpreting my email differently than I had intended. This experience actually taught me a very valuable lesson. The lesson, which I’ll never forget, is do NOT communicate things that are important via email. People can’t see you, decipher your tone, or clearly determine whether you’re being direct or just being a jerk.