This post is part of the series “Communication,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by SmartBrief’s SmartBlog on Leadership and the folks at Switch & Shift. Keep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter, SmartBrief on Leadership. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.
I’ll be the first to admit it. My handwriting simply is not what it used to be. Not that it was ever so great, mind you, but it used to be better, and I never experienced that hitch in my signature when signing checks like I do now. Outside of jotting down a “to do” or a shopping list or taking some notes in a conversation with a client (that I will later transcribe on my PC), I rarely write anything anymore. And my shoddier handwriting clearly reflects that reality.
We all know the reasons that we type instead of write. It’s faster (for those of us who either avoid excessive typos or simply don’t care to correct them), it’s neater, and it can easily be saved and categorized for future reference without as much sifting and paper clutter. Electronic messages can also be shared far and wide and can be responded to at the recipient’s convenience.
However, there are also some downsides to e-communication, some even more significant than declining handwriting skills. The shift away from the pen and pad has had a more negative effect on communication and relationships than many of us realize.
Research has shown that e-mail, for one, carries definite downsides, particularly in the workplace. These include:
- Misinterpretation. So much of the way that we normally share information and ideas is based on nonverbal communication. Inflections, hand gestures, facial tone, body positioning and the like say so much about how each party is receiving and responding to each other, as well as their passion for the information and ideas being shared. Without hearing a voice or seeing nonverbal cues, people struggle to properly discern the intended meaning, tone, value and emphasis.
- Impersonal touch. No matter how thoughtfully an e-mail is crafted, its digital nature makes it feel distant and impersonal. You simply cannot compare the feel of an e-mail with a handwritten (or even typed) letter or note.
- Raising the temperature. For most of us, distance makes it feel safer to “yell” or to be critical. We can more easily muster up the gumption to criticize when we are typing words on our personal keyboards than when we have to look someone in the eye and share our feelings.
- You can’t get it back. The quick nature of e-mail makes it easy to forget that our words actually matter and can really come back to bite us. (I suggest that you never send any e-mail with potentially negative implications without showing it to one or two trusted colleagues first). Not only must we worry about the message at the moment that it’s received, but there is an excellent chance that it will be forwarded for others to see.
- Keeping your distance. Perhaps worst of all, e-mail, IM and other e-communiques maintain distance between colleagues, sometimes even when only a wall or cubicle separate them physically. It’s often easier to fire off a response than to get up and share a few words. You may also want to not disturb your busy coworkers, especially if they are in another conversation or on the phone. While all of that is laudable, it’s important to not fall into the habit of remaining distant.
As our jobs involve working with and getting things done with people, we have to be able to build healthy relationships. We have to be able to interact in person, to get to know each other in real terms, how we each tick. Building trust helps us get our work done.