Email is evil

Personally, I love email:

  • It's still the best way to talk online, overall – the most open format, the best client programs.
  • Online beats offline since everything is archived and searchable.
  • Written beats spoken since you have time to think stuff through, and you can attach images, spreadsheets, code, etc.

However, I noticed that email discussions bring the worst out of people, whereas walking over to them and talking brings the best out of them. I guess it's because emails feel impersonal, leading to "email rage" much like feeling isolated inside a car leads to "road rage".

On top of that, for many people email is their todo list, there still really being no better alternative for keeping a todo list. What this means though is that sending an email with a suggestion implying work on their part without prior face-to-face discussion looks like a written order to do something. I believe this impression can't be avoided even with the most polite, "pretty please"-infested wording. It still feels like "you didn't even bother to talk to me and you expect me to do things!"

So I decided, roughly, to never open any discussion over email. It's fine for followups and bug reports, and it's fine if it's known to work for the people involved. But my default assumption is that email is an evil thing capable of creating tensions and conflicts out of nowhere. Much better to call the person, check that they're available to talk and go talk to them. Then, maybe, send them the summary over email to get all that archiving and searching goodness without the evil price.

79 comments ↓

#1 Dan on 04.24.12 at 5:07 am

Now that I've read this, I realize that I usually do this. I must have become subconsciously aware that in-person interaction is a better way of initiating conversations. I usually only will start a conversation via email if I can't get a hold of the person face-to-face first.

#2 Me on 04.26.12 at 12:37 pm

Email actually *is* (one of) my TODO list(s), so I find this post very interesting. May change my behavior regarding to talking before writing, or at least make me much more aware of it. Thanks

#3 Volodymyr on 05.03.12 at 1:03 am

The question is – what to use for discussions, what service ?

#4 Yossi Kreinin on 05.03.12 at 1:26 am

I prefer mine analogue :)

#5 Bas on 05.05.12 at 6:50 am

Totally agree. Goes for all other electronic text communication as well. Ever tried to have a decent conversation using text messages on your phone? Ugh…
People should call more often in my opinion.

#6 madprops on 08.04.12 at 1:13 pm

This applies to any kind of text communication.

#7 KVK1986 on 09.26.12 at 10:48 am

Just calling up on the phone (if remotely located) or walking over to the other person(s) and saying hello , then discussing issues often resolves or at least sets a positive tone to move things forward. Also, urgency can be better conveyed when talking personally – even on a phone, than by typing things like "MUST", "ASAP", etc. in an email.

#8 Damien on 12.28.12 at 2:11 pm

On the flip-side, one of the nice properties of email is that it's asynchronous, which allows the receiver to decide when they're comfortable processing it (within some appropriate delay).

Otherwise, calling someone or walking to their office implies that I expect the person to stop what they're doing and switch their attention to me. Of course people could always respond "not now" but in practice most people will let you interrupt them out of politeness (or in case the discussion actually is urgent). Having a culture where everyone interrupts each other like that seems to be a big cause of "everyone's busy but nothing gets done" kind of environments; at least from my experience. :)

Since the majority of my messages aren't urgent or blocking, email seems like the best approach most of the time.

#9 Yossi Kreinin on 12.29.12 at 10:26 am

A good solution is an email along the lines of "when can I call you/when can we meet to discuss X?"

I think email is fine as long as it clearly doesn't look like an action item and doesn't imply action items (so when it's obvious enough just from mentioning X that an action item will come out of the story, I'll omit X from the email and just suggest to talk without a reason.)

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