Email’s uncanny knack for tempting the shoot-from-the-hip part of the human brain and, therefore, spawning upset was thrown into sharp relief late last month when it emerged that prominent food journalist William Sitwell had reacted in an abusive fashion to an emailed pitch from a freelancer.

In her initial message to Sitwell – who was at that point editor of Waitrose Food magazine – writer Selene Nelson floated the idea of a “plant-based meal series” that would introduce readers to vegan recipes. In his response, Sitwell wrote: “Hi Selene. Thanks for this. How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?”

Nelson furnished Sitwell with a light-hearted reply, attempting to engage him in a genuine debate. But he only doubled down on his aggression, firing back: “I like the idea of a column called The Honest Vegan; a millennial's diary of earnest endeavour and bacon sandwiches…”

After Buzzfeed reported the email thread, [1] Sitwell was forced to resign his editorship. [2]

As the controversy simmered, Quartz at Work published a column from writer Nick Morgan (author of Can You Hear Me: how to connect with people in a virtual world), making a plea for more considerate conduct in email conversations. [3]

Morgan notes that email began as a tool enabling scientists to share research more easily – but mutated when it passed into common use. He writes: “We’ve all had our feelings hurt by some email communication, and we probably have hurt other people’s feelings. We’ve revealed in emails some secrets that we shouldn’t have shared, and we’ve been told secrets that we shouldn’t have heard. Email communication, in short, is simultaneously messy, imperfect, overwhelming and impoverished. It’s too much and too little at the same time. It was begun for a different purpose, was hijacked to fulfil a need for more and faster communication, and became a blunt instrument that no one can do without.”

He adds: “Email can function usefully as part of a communication quiver for a business team that’s separated by geography, but it shouldn’t be the only form. Never use email for emotionally important tasks like beginning relationships or repairing or terminating them.”

However, with more business-focused tools springing up in the market – such as team-messaging apps that help to concentrate workers’ minds on projects – is it time to scrap email altogether?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “When we did our research on leadership within distributed teams – ie, people who are not co-located – one of the things that people reported as a real downside was email overload. And I think you can get that even from colleagues who you sit right next to in an office environment. Those of us who remember the days of the memo – which had to be specially typed up, enveloped and tucked away in the internal post – would never have sent out as many memos as we send emails. We’re using emails in such vast numbers because they’re easy to volley out. But we’re not really using them for talking to people.”

Cooper explains: “a memo was typically used as the launch-pad for a record-keeping process around a specific discussion. It had a status, and the path of progression it sparked off was documented. Email doesn’t really have that. It may well generate large threads, but the discussion is often not as structured, and the threads themselves can become unwieldy and hard to follow. Email is often used for inappropriate reasons and, as it keeps recipients at an arm’s length, it’s essentially a one-way medium. Communications 101 will warn you of the perils of sending information to someone in a way that makes it hard to gauge their reaction, and you don’t know the mood, place or time in which they’re receiving it. It’s a perfect recipe for misunderstandings.”

She points out: “if you get a reply saying something along the lines of, ‘I don’t really understand that,’ pick up the phone and talk to that individual. Or, talk to people before you send an email, outlining what they are about to receive. That way, they can gauge your tone of voice. You can explain the topic more effectively, smoothing the way for the written communication. If you can Skype them, all the better: you will be able to see each other’s faces and dissipate the impersonal nature of the subsequent email conversation.”

Cooper notes: “looking specifically at Sitwell’s behaviour, email does have the advantage of providing an unambiguous audit trail of someone’s incompetence or, in his case, foolishness in their interactions with other people. That doesn’t just cover problems such as attitude, but unreasonable timings for the completion of work. So if your boss has those issues and uses only email, that material will build up over time and you will be able to make a case against that person’s conduct.”

She adds: “should we scrap email altogether? I’m sure organisations would adapt to survive, and there are plenty of examples out there of firms who have done just that – whether they have banned internal emails on specific days of the week, [4] or eliminated them entirely. [5] Email bans are by no means unheard of, and are certainly arrangements that can be managed. We at the Institute have found in our research on trust that regulation can produce really constructive outcomes. Banning people from using email may initially seem rather draconian. But if you make a half-hearted recommendation urging staff to just try and use email a little less, that is unlikely to have a noticeable effect. So yes – I’m inclined to support email going the way of the memo.”

For further thoughts on communication, check out these learning resources from the Institute

For learning materials on conversation, click here

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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