A Failure To Communicate

It was just an email meant to convey my sincere thanks. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it was taken. Bill had been helping me with a few projects and I though a quick “thank you” was in order. So I sat down at the computer and typed “Bill, thanks a lot for working on that project. You’ve really been a big help.” I checked it once, hit send and went back about my Saturday chores.
Around noon, I heard Lori yell from inside, “You’d better come in here and take a look at this”. When I found her she was standing in front of the computer pointing at the screen. “What’s up with Bill?” I shrugged. “I don’t know.” And then I sat down to read his reply. He was not happy with me. From his 500 word response to my 2 sentence email, I could tell he had taken my comment the wrong way. I read my email again and still couldn’t figure out what had set him off. Then I remembered. He hadn’t replied to my latest request for information a few days ago. I had just figured he was busy and had done the research myself. So my sincere “Thanks a lot!” looked like a sarcastic “Thanks a lot!”
Now, this email exchange could have continued with me being offended by his comments (which were real doozies by the way) and escalated back and forth. It actually happens quite often, in “email world”, with each person trying to punish the other with their keyboards about some problem or insult that never really existed in the first place. To make matters worse, people often seem to feel the need to copy innocent bystanders, essentially inviting them to a “public flogging”.
The real guts of this problem is that email, as a method of communication, does an excellent job of conveying data, but an all together horrible job of expressing subtle and nuanced emotions. Wait…forget about subtle. It’s even hard to tell the difference between sarcasm and sincerity. As readers of email, we are too often tempted to fill in the emotional blanks ourselves, inserting emotional content and unwritten meaning where none was intended.
Although I’ve been as guilty as anyone else in these exchanges, I’ve come to realize that the best way to figure out what someone really means… Is to call them on the phone or go see them in person. I know… that’s pretty “old school”, but it’s effective and ironically a real time saver.
So, instead of emailing Bill, I picked up the phone. “Hey Bill, it’s Ben.” A long pause and then a tense “Yeah… I know.” Ten seconds later Bill was mortified. “Oh my Gosh, I’m so sorry! I wish I could take that email back.” I interrupted. “Bill, I’ve already deleted it. So far as I’m concerned… It never happened.” “Really?” said my relieved friend. “Yep.” I said and then paused. “You didn’t blind copy anyone did you?” Another pause… and then from the phone I heard a quick “I’ll call you right back.” Click