Email as a Substitute for Real Life

The topic of email vs. face-to-face came up afterseeing a humorous entry on another blog (which I, of course, nowcan’t find), and this has long been a topic of interest so Ithought I’d post an entry.

Scenario: You’re working for a small firm,working in a pungent, medium-sized room that you sharewith a coworker, developing software for the remote-controlledtoothbrush industry.

You need to ask your coworker a question.

Do you:

  1. Turn around and say “Hey Bob, is the …?
  2. Send an instant message
  3. Send an email
  4. 3 and then 1
  5. 3, and then a 2 informing of 3, and then 1 to make surethat 2 and 3 were received

Change the scenario a bit so instead you’re providing a bitof information to your coworker: Maybe you’re telling them about asource code change that you made, or you’re answering a questionthey asked you earlier, but you’ve only now found the answer. Wouldthese situations change your answer?

Many would immediately answer 1.Regardless of the context, where physical proximity is available itis the first choice.

In fact, not only would this be their personal preference, theywould perceive it as a significant fault to chooseotherwise. “What sort of maladjusted person would email theperson sitting right beside them?” they might rhetoricallyask.

I’ve come across this quite a few times in my career. Severaltimes I’ve heard it said about others, and other times I’ve had itpointed out as a fault in my own behaviour (I’m a fan of email, andI type quickly so I often resort to it).

To those people I would say – You don’t understandemail.

Email is not simply a second-rate substitute when a face-to-faceisn’t possible. Email has several significant advantages,including, but not limited to:

  • Email is asynchronous. Face-to-face issynchronous. If someone can hear their coworker plugging away atsomething, deeply involved in a problem, but they themselves wantto get a piece of info out there so they can move onto otherthings, an email allows them to both continue workingasynchronously.
  • Email is searchable. One can easily referencean email for hard-to-recall details, whereas it’s not as easy to dothe same for a verbal communciations. “Hrmm…did Bob say toset it to, or Hrmm…he’s gone home.Let’s try .77…[BZZZZZZT!]”  (just imagine thatcolliding IP addresses can cause electrical shorts)
  • Email gives accountability. This isn’t one ofthose everyone-for-themselves-CYA type of comments, but itis a simple truth that people tend to be a bit more careful whenthey can’t back out under the premise that they weremisheard/misunderstood. Specifics in email have a much higherprobability of being correct and carried through than the sameverbally.

Imagine if your utility company didn’t mail you a bill, butinstead they gave you a phone call every month telling you yourtotal. You’re eating dinner and the phone call comes in.

“Hi Mr. Jones! Boy you really went wild with the hottub lastmonth! The details of your bill are XYZ and YZX and your meter wasread XZY and your grand total is $YYY and you need to pay byYYYY-MM-DD”

Of course this is ridiculous, as contrived analogies usuallyare. And of course you probably want a better relationship withyour coworkers than you do with your utility company, so it reallyshouldn’t be considered too analagous. But the basic premiseremains the same – a bill in the mail can be dealt with at therecipient’s own pace, at a time appropriate for them, and clearlyand concisely contains the necessary details. Your utility can’tsay “Uh uh! I said that your total was $2Y. You must not have beenlistening carefully. Here’s your penalty.”

I’m not completely polarized – there are manyscenarios where a good face-to-face is preferrable, and it isnecessary to have them frequently to maintain good friendships anda robust casual communication network in the office. Nonetheless,the misplaced moral righteousness of the anti-email crusaders is,in my opinion, a misunderstanding of the place and purpose ofemail.

The other common criticism of email is the oft recounted “emailsdon’t convey emotions well enough – 90% of communications isnon-verbal you know! – so people get their hairs up”. There issome proven truth to this, and it is entirely true that somesensitive discussions can get out of hand in email. Yet there isanother, mysterious side to email that’s often ignored: Many ofthose sensitive-in-email discussions would never havehappened verbally. Maybe it seems like an acrimonious waste of timewhen a couple of alpha-developers have a long, drawn out debateabout some technical errata, but the reality is that often thereare things learned from them (as polarized as people may seem, theydo often incorporate new knowledge).

Many of these sorts of debates would never have happened outsideof the venue of email, so it isn’t that email made the conversationmore polarized or impersonal, but rather email gave an outlet forcommunications that otherwise would have simmered unspoken. Poorpractices would be continued, options ignored, and so on, alluncontested.