There are so many ways to communicate these days it just boggles the mind.
What was once limited to postal mail and (land line) telephone calls has blossomed to include instant messages and chat, store-and-forward audio and video messages (you record and send; the recipient listens or views at their convenience), text messages, video call services like Skype and others, as well as group conversations using tools like Google Hangouts. Not to mention mobile apps that mimic walkie-talkies in addition to good old mobile phone calls and text messaging, and much more.
I do some or all of those from time to time as situations warrant.
But I keep coming back to a tried and true communication mechanism that works the best for me for so many different reasons.
I keep coming back to email.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
1. Email lets me think
This by far the most important reason I gravitate to email as my communications mechanism of choice.
I feel like I’m horrible off-the-cuff.1 I feel awkward and put “on the spot”, and I’m usually left with that “I should have said” feeling.
I just don’t think that fast.
Composing an email lets me take whatever time I need – be it a few seconds, a few minutes or (rarely) a few hours.
2. Email lets me say exactly what I want
Just as important, email allows me to carefully craft what I say and make sure that I’m saying what I intend to say.
That’s not to say I’m still not occasionally misunderstood – no communications mechanism is perfect – but if I can invest the time to think about what I’m saying and how I say it, chances are I’ll do a much better job of getting my point across.
Yes, I suppose it helps that I’m a writer. But let’s clarify: it wasn’t always so. I’m first and foremost a computer geek, and have been since Fortran was a required course back in my college days.
I was certainly no writer then; not a writer of words, anyway – I was and remain a writer of code. And yet email was it for me from the moment I was introduced to it.2
3. Email lets me consume on my schedule
Email is never an interruption. If it is, you’re doing it wrong and I’ll talk about that in a minute.
I can turn off email for hours – and I often do. And that’s OK!
I can choose when I’m going to consume email, or not. I might elect not to open my email program until noon some days, or I may elect to clear out my inbox first thing and then ignore it while I get other things done.
I control it, not the other way around.
4. Email lets me reply without interrupting
Similarly, I can reply to anyone at any time and know that it never needs to be an interruption for them. I never have to feel guilty about sending an email.
That means I’m more likely to respond, rather than avoiding the awkwardness or annoyance of some other form of contact.
And of course, my reply will be more thoughtful.
5. I can scan email quickly
No one said you have to read the whole message.
Particularly on active discussion lists, it’s often enough to check out a subject line, or quickly scan just a bit of the message and realize that it’s not something you need to read or participate in.
Deleting is also my friend. I can, and often do, quickly scan the accumulated email in the morning and delete or archive anything and everything that I don’t care to act on at that moment.
And I can do all that quickly and easily.
6. I can read it anywhere
Naturally, I deal with email on my computers – both of them.
But I can also deal with it on my mobile phone, or my tablet … heck, even my Kindle will open up Gmail’s web interface and allow me to read and reply to email.
No, sometimes those devices aren’t the best for composing lengthy replies – but as I said earlier, I can choose when I want to do what. What they are great for, however, is scanning, reading, deleting and archiving email that comes in.
No matter where I am.
Waiting in various locations like restaurants, traffic jams, before and after meetings (and yes, sometimes during)… while having a coffee at Starbucks … it doesn’t matter where I am: email is ubiquitous.
7. I can preserve context
One of the problems with delayed responses is that the sender often loses context. If I reply “Yes”, for example, they may have forgotten the question that they asked just the day before.
That’s easily dealt with. My replies often look like this:
> On Tuesday 10/27 Joe Blow said:
> Are we still meeting on Friday?
I didn’t quote the entire email, just enough to give context. It’s a wonderful way to make sure everything is clear and that everyone is on the same page.
8. I can keep a record
I keep almost all of my mail – both what I send and what I receive. Storage is cheap, after all.
There’s no predicting what I’ll need a year or two from now – and yes, I have occasionally gone back several years to find something for an assortment of reasons. Knowing that I have all this email archived (and backed up) makes finding old and random items very easy.
Now, to present the other side for a moment: this is why lawyers prefer phone calls and in-person meetings. Email records can be subpoenaed by the courts in many jurisdictions. That message you sent last year could be an important part of a court case. As long as it’s something that helps your cause, that’s fine, but if not … well, you may want to reconsider how much email you keep and for how long. (And as always, I’m not an attorney – if you have an actual question relating to the legal issues surrounding email retention I strongly suggest you contact yours.)
If you hate email, you’re doing it wrong
One of the common reactions from some people is “I HATE EMAIL” – usually from people with an overflowing inbox.3
My friends, if that’s your reaction then you’re doing email wrong. There’s simply no reason email can’t be managed into a useful tool instead of an oppressive burden.
- Unsubscribe – stop receiving all those newsletters and promotional emails that you’re not paying attention to anyway. (Yes, even my own – if you’re not finding it helpful, then why should I be bugging you?)
- Use that spam filter – make sure that all that stuff you shouldn’t unsubscribe from – the stuff you didn’t originally ask for – gets swept out of your inbox automatically so that you never have to look at it.
- Don’t save email in your inbox – set up folders to throw messages in once you decide what they need. You’re probably not going to act on ’em while they’re in your inbox anyway, so why have them in your face?
- Act on each message once – this is an ideal that I’ll admit I don’t always reach, but the goal is simple: touch each incoming message only once if at all possible. Archive it, delete it, reply to it, or whatever makes sense for the type of message it is.
- Rules are your friend – use rules and filters to sort your incoming email for you automatically. My servers send me a bunch of email every night – that I never look at since I have inbox rules set up to automatically move them to a folder. If I encounter an issue I can always refer to them in that folder. Use the computer for what it’s good at: automated tasks.
- Use multiple accounts – often the ‘too much’ email we get is the result of signing up for things, making purchases that require an email address and so on. Use a throw away account – pay attention only as long as you need to to complete the transaction and then ignore it all. If a subscription or an account becomes important you can always change the email address used to be that of your primary email account.
- Turn off new message alerts – email should never interrupt you. Check email when you feel like it, and even then don’t check it very often. There’s simply no reason to. Polling for email, or even worse, having a new message alert pop up while you’re doing something else not only interrupts whatever it is you’re doing, but it adds to that sense of being overwhelmed.
Don’t think of email as something you “do”. Email isn’t a job, it’s not a role, it’s not an end in and of itself.
Email is simply a tool. A tool to get other things done.
Evaluate it like any other tool you use, and learn to use it appropriately.
But … the kids aren’t doing it!
It’s a common comment that individuals under a certain age (which ranges from 10 to 40 depending on who you’re talking to) don’t use email.
My assertion is that most any that enter the professional work force will, almost from day one. Any that want to communicate reliably with those on the other side of that imaginary dividing line will as well.
No, the kids aren’t jumping on it as quickly, but I suspect most will eventually as situations arise for which it remains the best solution.
And to be completely realistic, email’s not for everyone. For folks with lifestyle issues or any issue that makes reading and/or writing itself a burden, email may not always be the best choice.
Email has its issues and it has its problems, there’s no escaping that.
But it’s not dead. Not by a long shot.