Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Is E-mail Really Faster & More Convenient?

Have you ever sent or received an e-mail, only to find out later that it had been misinterpreted? (My hand is raised on this one). According to a recent survey conducted by Strategic Counsel on behalf of Microsoft Canada, this isn't such an uncommon occurence. Microsoft reports that, since it's difficult to convey tone and emotion in e-mails, they are often misinterpreted, leading to the person having to follow up with a phone call to explain; or the recipient having to read, and re-read the message over and over, in order to confirm it's intended meaning.

"Please send the package to Mr. Smith ASAP." This could be interpreted as a terse, snotty, instructional e-mail. Is "ASAP" meant to sound authoritative, or simply conveying that it's an important package, and needs to arrive immediately? Often times, someone won't take the time to adjust verbage such that there's no room for questioning. (Keep in mind that this is just a simple example to illustrate the point. If you have some examples of your own, feel free to comment here!) Another popular method of conveying emotions is through the use of emoticons. For example, a simple :) can advise that a comment is meant to be taken lightly. But let's face it: how professional is it to use smily faces?

The point of Microsoft's study was to show that, although e-mail is meant to be a more convenient, faster method of communication, it often ends up taking more time out of one's day, having to triple-check the wording of an e-mail to ensure it "sounds right", or having to follow up by phone or in person. (The other point of the study was, of course, to promote the company's new software-enabled unified communication systems that integrate voice, video, and e-mail communication together).

I would have to disagree in many ways with the results of this study. For every misinterpreted e-mail that I've had to follow up on by phone, I've probably sent hundreds of others that saved me hours upon hours trying to reach the person by phone, or vice versa. Sure, there are times when e-mail simply won't cut it, and it's worth the extra effort to pick up a phone or jump in the car (for example, an interview by e-mail simply doesn't make sense!) But in other instances, e-mail is, and will remain, an important, faster, and convenient method of communication.

That said, I do agree that a product that can combine several methods of communication into one seamless process is certainly a welcome one in any business.


Lee_D said...

I don't think we can blame the medium when the problem is the message. There's no way to compensate for lacking basic grammer and spelling skills. I've often noticed this among highly technical people.

At my old job, our Project Manager is highly competent, and a Certified Engineering Technologist by trade. Verbally, he has no problem communicating his ideas, but his emails look like they were written by a First Grader. It's become a good natured joke, and he laughs about it too, but his emails are totally incoherent. He's better off just picking up the phone.

Marketnews - Christine Persaud said...

Hi Lee,

Thanks for the comment. I think you are mistaking incoherent e-mails for potentially misinterpreted ones. What this study focuses on are e-mails that, although using proper grammar and spelling, simply might not convey their "tone" as easily as one could when speaking vocally. If I tell you a joke on the phone, you can easily judge by the laughter that follows it, or by a sing-song voice, that it is in fact a joke. Short of typing a big "LOL" after something, one might not be sure whether someone is being sarcastic, or authoritative, or is perhaps angry, through an e-mail. A reader has nothing to lead to interpretation but standard keystrokes that form words.