When It’s Better to Talk Than to Send an E-mail


If you are in human resources, you probably use e-mail a lot, for all kinds of transactions. It is easy and fast, and it has been responsible for jumps in productivity.

But we can rely on e-mail too much. It has drawbacks. Sometimes, it’s better to pick up the telephone, or have a face-to-face conversation, where you can do a better job of communicating than with email, says Anthony Tan, a venture capital CEO.

Conversation becomes especially important, Tan says, when you are trying to resolve a conflict or get the word out about an important business decision. E-mail has become the mode of choice when people try to resolve conflicts today. But what this actually does is allow the participants to avoid the issue at hand. It is the path of least resistance, where you don’t have to face the person you are dealing with.

The e-mails bounce back and forth, but nothing really gets accomplished or resolved. They continue long past the point of usefulness.

The problems with e-mail are really not mysterious, Tan says.

One drawback, Tan explains, is that e-mail doesn’t have the nuances that the human voice is capable of to impart meaning. Through the intonations and changes in our voice, we are able to communicate a lot more than you can through writing. With e-mail you cannot get to the emotion the words carry as readily as you can listening.

Another problem with e-mail, Tan says, is that it too often encourages responses that simply are a reaction, as opposed to moving things forward. When you receive an e-mail, you feel an obligation to respond as quickly as possible, to show your efficiency. And so you often fire something off without giving it much deliberation. Thus, instead of thoughtful discourse, you fall into this reactive mode. It’s also easier to be more defensive in e-mail than in person because, unlike face-to-face conversation, the message is divorced from the person sending it.

For the reasons given above, e-mail can sometimes drag things out, Tan says. It allows tit-for-tat exchanges to gain a momentum of their own. After a while, they simply become a waste of time.

E-mail, and other forms of social media, have enriched our communication in many ways and allowed us to expand our relationships. Yet there are times when a real face-to-face conversation is best at resolving issues, and using e-mail is just a way of dragging out a problem.

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