30 years of email and 30 years of bad habits

  • Published
  • By Col. James LeFavor
  • 102nd Intelligence Wing Vice Commander
Some individuals and organizations treat email and instant messaging in ways that go against the grain of what it should be used for: to communicate in a slower, more permanent form without using the phone or in person. It's not a replacement for the phone or face-to face (F2F), and it's not a means to get in touch with someone immediately. Yet often the expectation is that it is - or should be. Here is the pitfall that we all fall into...nothing can substitute for a F2F conversation.

There are approximately 52 muscles in the human face, and the human spoken language is almost infinite in dynamic variation and reception. Why would we ever want to suppress these vital communication cues and limit our expression to a 1-dimensional world of underline, bold, italics, and ALL CAPS? When you roll up all the other non-verbal cues that human gestures and body language can provide, it is obvious that "ecomm" is the far poorer form of communication.

As email has now passed its 30 year anniversary in the Air Force, we have definitely reaped the benefits of its strong points. E-comm is a tremendous tool for: task management, documentation, reminders, organization, convenience, covertness, and as a precursor to voice or F2F comm. It is poor, however, for everything else: accuracy, intent, depth, timeliness, and time efficiency. Errors in transmitting and receiving are foundational to email. The bottom line is that technologies cannot yet solve the differences in intention and reception.

We've all been in the situation where we have just hit the send button on an email and immediately regret it because we know it will be misinterpreted. Or, we have just received an email and are completely upset at the tone. Ecomm can be very effective if used the proper way, but a complete disaster if applied incorrectly. I have compiled here a list of my most irritating bad email techniques.

--The Rant: Sending an "angry" email just means you are an invertebrateĀ¹. Either get up and go visit the person, or call them if not on your base. The angry email almost always gets misinterpreted and ends up with the other person mad as well. We ALL do this. Let's curb this whenever possible.

--Brevity: Clear, concise comm in every form of communication is a standard objective. If it only takes 10 words to convey your point, then use 10, not 100.

--The Attachment with no explanation: Nothing is more irksome than a blank email with a huge attachment with maybe an "FYI...". If you send an attachment it had better come with the research completed and a summary up front. I won't even open an attachment unless the sender explains in the email body just what the purpose is. Sending this type "up the chain" is a major foul.

--Time Sensitive: Sending an email with a quick response needed (and no follow up) is a recipe for failure. There may be many reasons why timely receipt doesn't occur. A good technique is to follow such an email up with a F2F visit or phone calls until contact is made. Also, sending a tasker by email with a suspense of "COB today" is just asking for it. Something that important requires better comm.

--Expecting an Immediate Response: A subset of the previous. Just because email transport is immediate doesn't mean the response is going to be immediate. Give the person some time. If the response is always immediate, you know the person has nothing to do but stare at their in-container. Treat email in a way that allows you to treat your other work better.

--CC All: When "All" could care less than less.

--Bad News: If at all possible, don't send someone bad news, especially if it is personal, via an impersonal means. Sure it's easy, but also too callous. Do your best to make contact at least by phone.

--Jokes or Swears: Be careful. With close friends & colleagues, we may tend to type as if we're talking to them in the room...which is human nature and not malevolent by itself. But an unintentional slip of the "forward" button and your private banter could now be public knowledge. Just be careful. Anything you type becomes the property of the US Government. Use the test of asking yourself if the email is ok to be read by the CSAF (or even better, your mother).

--The Right-Next-Door Email: Sending an email or text to the person actually sitting within earshot is just plain goofy. And yet this occurs routinely.

Finally, remember that unless you put discipline and boundaries in place when it comes to using ecomm, you will continue to use it wrongly. It a great tool, but not the patent solution. Learn when to reach for your phone. Also know that for the most precise and accurate communication, there is no "net" like "sneaker-net".

Invertebrate (in-vir-ti-brit) - n 1. any animal lacking a backbone. - adj 2. lacking strength of character