Scott H Young

Don’t Use Email for Conversations


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A big pet peeve of mine is people who try to use their email account to have conversations. Email is a bad medium for conversations; if you want to chat you’re better off picking up the phone. Worse, conversational emailing wastes your time and irritates the people who need to read through your messages.

Are You a Conversational Emailer?

I think the best way to describe a conversational email is to look at its opposite, a task-oriented email. Task emails:

  • Get to the point quickly. More importantly, they actually have a point.
  • Separate out key ideas in bullet points or separate lines.
  • Add value to the dialog. They were written with the purpose of transferring information, not just as a knee-jerk click on the Reply button.
  • Avoid sarcasm, attempts at humor and emoticons. Some jokes stay funny after being reduced to text, most don’t.
  • Clearly either do or do not require feedback. They aren’t vague about whether a reply is required.

Conversational emails violate at least one, and often more, of these rules. The reason behind the violation is usually that the person was trying to email the way they would talk in a conversation. As a bigger sin, the person might be trying to use email just to chat.

Email, as a communication medium, has some serious handicaps which make it difficult to use for conversations. I’d like to show why other mediums work better when you want to chat. I’ll also show how you can cut fluff from your emails to make them task based. Finally I’d like to add a few potential exceptions to this rule, when you might want to break these rules.

Email Wasn’t Meant for Chatting

Email has a few great advantages when communicating. But some of these advantages become weaknesses when you try to use email to have a conversation. Here are some of the reasons it doesn’t work:

  1. Email is One-to-One. Although you can use Reply to All and mailing lists, email works best between two people. This means group conversations are difficult to continue.
  2. Email is Time Delayed. Conversations work best when there is a rapid flow of feedback. If your messages are hours or days apart, this makes chatting difficult.
  3. Email is Written. While there are written mediums of communication that work well for chatting, it is never as good as human speech. Text removes the tonality, body language and subtle cues that make a conversation interesting.
  4. Email is Bloated. People already get too many emails. Adding to that pile lengthy conversations means your messages will get ignored or skimmed.

If you want to kick your email chatting habits, here are better alternatives for having conversations:

Forums

Forums work better for chatting because they happen in a group environment. I don’t need to read every new message in a forum, just the ones that interest me. I can start up a dialog with several people at a time. If I’m too busy to respond, I just stop reading the forum. Forums aren’t perfect for conversations, but they are far better than email.

Phone

When you switch from text to voice your conversations improve. A phone has immediate feedback, adds tone of voice and can’t be skimmed. Phone conversations are probably the second-best alternative, after face to face chats.

Instant Messaging

For private conversations you need to have online, instant messaging is better than email. IM allows for fast feedback and won’t bloat your inbox. Many messaging programs also allow you to use voice with a microphone which can expand the conversation if you aren’t a fast typist.

Face to Face

The best way to have a conversation is the least technological. Group capabilities, body language, tonality and immediate feedback are just a few of the reasons face to face conversations work best. The only disadvantage is the time it takes to meet in person. If you can’t see someone face to face, I’d default to one of the above three before sending an email.

Why Conversational Emailing Hurts You

Conversational emailing slows you down and increases that chances your emails aren’t read. Writing out several paragraphs of dialog into an email takes a lot of time. Since you can go back and edit your writing, it’s easy to 30-40 minutes stressing over the details of a lengthy email.

Using email for conversations increases the chances your emails aren’t read. I have several friends that get over 100 emails a day. If they didn’t skim their emails, they wouldn’t be able to keep up. As a result, long blocks of text are ignored in favor of short messages. If your request is buried in your conversation, it might not be read.

Why Conversational Emailing Irritates Others

Conversational emailing irritates other people because by starting a conversation, they are forced to join in. Having a conversation doesn’t just waste your time, it wastes the recipient’s time writing a response. Email chatting is usually heavy on both the length of emails and number of emails. For people trying to speed up their inbox, chatters are a nightmare.

How to Cut Chatting From Your Email

The best way to cut chatting from email is to have your conversations elsewhere. I’m not trying to attack conversations. Just because having a few beers with your friends isn’t efficient, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. But since so many better mediums for conversations exist, why use email?

The next step is to convert your email writing style to be more task-based. This will save you time, increase the readability of your messages and reduces the amount of conversations people try to send you. Here are some tips:

  1. Use verb-based subject lines. A subject doesn’t need to be a noun. Think of it as a headline instead. Instead of just writing the subject, hint to the other person the point of your email. Example: “I need your contact info” instead of “Contact Information”.
  2. Bullet points are your friend. Paragraphs that get over 5-6 sentences should be broken up and multiple points should be reduced to bullets.
  3. Separate out requests from the body of your text. Don’t bury a question within a paragraph of chatting. Put any requests on a separate line so the other person knows what to respond with.
  4. Know thy point. Don’t write an email unless it has a clear purpose.

When Do Email Conversations Work?

There are exceptions to every rule and cases where email conversations will work. Here are a few times you might not be able to avoid being an email chatterbox:

  • Introductions. If email is your first point of contact with a new person, chatting might override being entirely task-oriented. I get a lot of new emails from readers that don’t have a specific purpose, but I wouldn’t change them.
  • Email Only Relationships. If possible, try to bridge the gap to talk to email-only friends on forums, through IM or over the phone. But, if you can’t, email can work for a quick conversation.

How would you rate your own email skills? Are you task-oriented or wind up in lengthy conversations?


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6 Responses to “Don’t Use Email for Conversations”

  1. NJ WebGuy says:

    You make good points. I try to stick to short emails with a clear purpose, and appreciate the same from folks in most cases.

    It gets hard to accomplish much when you are digging through many paragraphs, and some of these have questions that probably need an answer.

    Your point about clearly requiring feedback or not is an often overlooked one.

  2. Scott,

    These are all great points. It helps to keep in mind that different forms of communication are suited to different purposes. Email I think is great for business interactions, but it’s ineffective when you’re trying to make a personal impact.

    There’s also the factor of whether or not you’re a better speaker or better writer. Go with your strengths.

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