Is e-mail a flawed form of communication?

In my continuing research for a solution to my e-mail woes, I came across the following video about why e-mail is a difficult medium for communication. “Why Email Starts Fights!” from BNET:

This may be the heart of my issue with e-mail. It’s the fundamental flaw as a medium that keeps me from wanting to use it. I know that for most interactions there are faster and more effective ways to communicate. I’m not convinced the phone or face-to-face are the only solutions, but I think that they are definitely more efficient than some e-mail messages I’ve crafted.

I really like communicating over twitter because it forces brevity. It’s difficult for others to misconstrue “I am running late because my child had to be rushed to the hospital.” It’s plain speech in 140 characters and can be accessed when it’s convenient for the user. I also do most of my communication with the Unclutterer staff over Campfire. It’s a chat room structure that facilitates on-going communication. Since the conversation is continuous, problems rarely arise among members of our team because clarifications can be made throughout the day and people add to the conversation as their schedules permit.

What communication systems do you prefer over e-mail? Do you think the seven percent figure named in the article is accurate based on your experiences? How would you change e-mail if you could?

29 Comments for “Is e-mail a flawed form of communication?”

  1. posted by John on

    I’m a fan of speaking to people.

    Short form communications like IM are quite useful, but when they become broadcast (as with Twitter) I think they tend to encourage stupidity. I loved the idea of Twitter but stopped using it because I felt like I was surrounded by smart people not being very smart. Just my experience.

    Having to actually develop a full thought and write it down is a useful exercise.

  2. posted by Mary on

    Very interesting video.

    From my past experience, the reason why e-mails or IM has started fights is that people would forward or copy parts of conversations to other people. I’ve never had it happen that somebody misunderstood my e-mails. I really don’t like speaking on the phone, so my life is either online (e-mail or IM), or in person. I will use the phone if I need to know something right now. I guess that’s because I’m from the generation who didn’t talk to their friends on the phone in high school, but used only IM.

  3. posted by Lose That Girl on

    I came from the generation that did talk to their friends on the phone and frankly, I prefer email. I rarely sit and have a long chat on the phone. I’d rather get the points across in an email than get off topic over the phone. I find a simple conversation often turns into a half hour chat about everything under the sun and I often don’t have time for that. People I know will email me and don’t call. I’m fortunate in that most people I deal with feel the same way so email makes it an easy and reliable form of communication.

  4. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    I *hate* talking on the phone. (I think I used up my lifetime capacity for phone conversation when I was in high school.) I avoid it unless I’m trying to brainstorm with someone or, as the presenter in the video said, conveying something delicate that could be misread. With copies of the e-mail exchange, I can always go back and see exactly what was agreed to and what my responsiblities are for a project. If I have to rely on taking notes during a phone call, I will inevitably miss some important piece. And, like for @Lose That Girl, face-to-face and phone conversations tend to take much more time than a simple e-mail.

    BTW, nice typo in the video: “attidude.” 🙂

  5. posted by L. on

    Aren’t all forms of communication flawed?

  6. posted by Michael on

    This is probably semantics but why does everyone ask if tools are flawed? Email is tool. That’s it. In my mind asking if my email is flawed is like asking if the server is down. All of the “benefits” mentioned for twitter, IM, or chat rooms are completely available through email if you know how to use it. You can set requirements for message length through company policy for example. Emails that cause people to be upset are not because of the medium but because of failed communication.

  7. posted by Stuart on

    In our organization all the younger people (me included) use email. We keep our emails short and we use tags in the subject line to identify the type of email (fyi, act, thx). The older guys use the phone and they are constantly loosing track of things because they can’t do a quick search (and they don’t take notes).

    As far as tone, I’ve very transparent. I tell people straight up “I’m ticked off” “Ha, ha. LOL” “I’m sad” “I’m not upset.” I think it might be more of a generational gap. People who grew up with the technology tend to use it more naturally.

    Well done video and a great point about Twitter!

  8. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    But Erin, the sample message in the video – “I didn’t say you have an attitude problem” – would have the same problem in Twitter or any word-only medium, right? I’m finding Twitter amazingly fun and useful, but some messages are still better handled by another type of communication.

    Before I saw the video, I thought about how much I like e-mail, and rely on it. The first example that came to mind was communicating with my brother about what happened in one of my mom’s doctor visits. But that was lots of facts and data – just what the video says e-mail is best for.

    And of course, one reason I like e-mail is that it’s ubiquitous – almost everyone I want to communicate with is on e-mail, while many aren’t using Twitter or IM or other tools. I know that’s partly generational; I’m a “desktop veteran” per

  9. posted by Lazygal on

    I think the vast majority of Twitter users are twits – I honestly DO NOT care if you’re going to sleep, if there’s a great movie down the road from you, if you’re waiting on the tarmac to take off! Get a life and stop cluttering mine!

    It really is more about how you use the tool, and using the right tool for the right reason. If I want to announce to a bunch of my friends/followers/colleagues that I’m at a specific location during a conference, I’ll use Twitter. If I want a documented conversation with a colleague/vendor, I’ll use e-mail. If I want to talk with a good friend having a difficult time, it’s either face-to-face or phone.

    Isn’t that what decluttering is? Using what’s best, rather than using a minimalist tool simply because it’s minimalist?

  10. posted by Angela on

    really ATTIDUDE…

    the inability to write (improper spelling and grammar) is a reason email communication irritates me. This guy was trying to educate others on the proper use of e-mail. Well, I am assuming because when I saw the typo I stopped watching/listening – spelling is essential, word usage is essential, grammar is essential if you are going to get me to take you seriously.

  11. posted by KacyK on

    That was an excellent little video clip of noteworthy facts!
    I do prefer face to face communication best.
    I love VM for info or the E-mail for basic info.
    But please stick to face to face for emotional stuff, or advise and family issues.

  12. posted by Tucker on

    How about this: Stop lamenting over email and just deal with it. Either respond to it, delete it, or pick up the phone. I think heart of the matter is that email is not an appropriate way to have all conversations or solve all problems, but it does work GREAT for some things.

    Then again- it might just be all about your “attidude”.

  13. posted by Wellington Grey on

    The guy in the video is entirely correct. Email should be use for direct, fact-based communication only. When you start talking about people and emotions, it’s like our brains are designed to hear the sentences we read in the most offensive way.

  14. posted by Cyrano on

    It works both ways, though. I have the luxury of a boss who, despite being a nice guy most of the time, can be a real jerk when he doesn’t get what he wants (he once made a marketing manager vacuum the office because she messed up on a task; I wish I could say the punishment was in good fun, but it was more of the tone of, “you can’t do your job, hopefully this is something you can handle”). He owns the company so we’re kinda stuck with him.

    In any case, when his attitude starts going south, I can collect myself and write calm, fact-based emails without increasing the hostility. If he gets me on the phone, though, and starts badgering me there, it becomes impossible to stay calm, and emotional responses start coming out in our conversation (real apologies, sarcastic apologies, past grievances, etc.)

    Though the real issue is I probably need a new job.

  15. posted by jane on

    Yeah, twitter and IM would have the same problem with that sentence. Also, you can convey tone with italics. But really, who is writing that much emotional stuff in work email?

  16. posted by Andrew Pass on

    This might be true. But how many of us have been unhappy when we said something in a conversation that we couldn’t take back. At least email gives us a chance to read and re-read before pressing that send button.

  17. posted by Starla on

    I think this is all about learning to write properly – and I don’t mean grammar or even spelling. I mean learning to say what you mean. If there is a possibility that your comment may be taken in more than one way, then it is your duty to clarify what you are trying to communicate.
    I also think some people can type faster than their brain can really process what they’re typing. That’s why for personal/emotional based correspondence I always send a letter or a card. I post about eight or nine letters per week and the act of having to slow down one’s thoughts so the pen can keep up is very useful.
    You may think that you don’t have time to write a letter, but I actually find that I can write several in under an hour now. It’s a calming activity and everyone I write to says that they prefer receiving letters to email. That’s not to say I’m a luddite though. I use email as much as everyone else, just not when I want to say something really worth saying.

  18. posted by Email is not a flawed form of communication « Experiencing Life on the Verge on

    […] by Nancy on March 29, 2009 The Unclutterer, linked to an interesting video explaining why the author, Edward Muzio, believes email is a flawed […]

  19. posted by Gypsy Rogers on

    The problem with lack of tone (which is really the weakness in email) is not an email problem it is a defensive human problem. People who are insecure will look for negative tones in the words and hear nasty tones in your words when they read them to themselves. It come down to that if you are looking for a fight it is a lot easier to find one.

    I’d of rather seen this article named “Why Many Humans are Incapable of Handling Email Maturely”

    The other issue they totally didn’t address here is that text based interaction removes the immediate feed back of another person there, you de-humanise them and forget you are talking to a real person. When you talk via text over a computer to someone (by email, chat, or bbs, or whatever) it is very easy to forget that you are talking to a real person and so you might not be as nice as you would be in person. I’ve seen this happen time and time again in online communities, people stop being people and start being weird handles that only exist conceptually “I didn’t flame a person, I flamed sillyuser125”

    So, in most every case the problem is with the maturity of the people you are dealing with, not the tool. I wouldn’t give a gun to someone who was too immature to handle it, but luckily email doesn’t kill.

  20. posted by Alexander Forst-Rakoczy on

    E-Mail has one huge advantage over IMs or Twitter or phone calls: it is an asynchronous form of communication

    You can transport information from one person to another without waking up the person because of different timezones or without having to wait until the other person logs on to IM. You don’t disturb a meeting because you called at the wrong time. You don’t have to talk to the voicebox and can only leave a message like “call me back, please” because your subject would be to long and complicated to explain on the phone anyway.

    You just send an e-mail and don’t care if the person reads and answers it right now. You need an answer, just not right now.

    Just make sure to use the right medium for your communication needs. I simply don’t want to have to tell service hotlines part numbers or registration numbers with 20 letters or more and spell out my name and address multiple times because of bad connections or whatnot. I also don’t want to have to wait a quarter of an hour because the service hotline is busy.

    Just write an e-mail and send it.

    Next time, please talk about why many companies only send form letters back or refuse to be contacted by e-mail at all.

  21. posted by Mletta on

    Twitter? Ugh. That’s hardly communication, given how most people use it.

    It’s amazing, that with all the tools (email, IM, text messaging, cell phones, etc.) that people really don’t understand what “communication” is.

    It’s not sound bites. 144 character Twitter posts or abbreviated text messages.

    It’s not even, from what I hear on the streets, a phone call.

    No, this kind of stuff is just about shouting “I’m here” or “Where are you”, etc.

    It’s all perfect for lazy folks who don’t plan ahead (My least favorite cell calls? People in supermarkets and other stores, walking up and down the aisles reading labels.) or who don’t seem to care what they say or where and who hears them.

    It’s NOT communication. It’s perhaps an information exchange.

    Most people today are not, frankly, interested in conversation or communication.

    Think of all the folks in companies who hide behind email memos.

    Of course, most people really have little to say anyway, so…

    There are too many ways to “communicate” today and since everyone has a preference, it’s virtually impossible to find the time/energy/resources to maintain contact except when absolutely necessary.

    I know people who never read email. Don’t answer cell phones. Refuse to accept text messages. Hate IM. Are never home for a landline call. or will only talk while they are driving in a car(And I will not call anyone who I know is driving.)

    It’s the reason we really only can keep in touch with a very few people. Too many options, too many choices and too many guidelines from too many people. (No don’t call us here, call us there. Etc. Etc.)

    Technology is only as good as what it delivers. Most does not enhance interpersonal relationships. If anything, it makes them worse.

    And who has the time to follow people on Twitter? And who even cares? Real people with real lives don’t have time to Twitter. Or keep up with the so-called “friends” on facebook or

    It’s all a substitution for the real thing: BEING with people and just actually talking face to face.

    One exception: Video conferencing for families and friends. They should have these in all nursing homes, hospitals and ALFs, for example, so families can “talk”/see their family and friends who are out of town.

    Video conferencing is also great for biz travelers.

    But again, no substitute for the real thing.

    If most people today knew how to read and write (they don’t), they could write real LETTERS.

    There’s a place for them.

  22. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Mletta — Twitter is most certainly communication. We have more than 1,500 followers to our Unclutterer Twitter account, and those readers benefit from the additional organizing information we write there. It would be a complete waste of time for us to send handwritten letters with this information out to all of our readers. In fact, I can’t think of a bigger waste of time and money. When the letters would arrive, the information would be so outdated that it would be irrelevant.

    Twitter might not be your favorite way to communicate, but that doesn’t make it a fake form of communication.

  23. posted by gypsy packer on

    The only real flaw with e-mail is that it can be hacked or surveilled.

    Seriously, anyone who wants to misconstrue or misunderstand a communication will do so, no matter how or where we express ourselves.

    Anyone lacking in a sense of humor will nitpick or take offense–attidude? Hail yeah, this is the Appalachian South. Look in any tavern parking lot and you can pick up plenty of it. Neologisms aren’t illegal (yet?).

    I don’t use Twitter, but it sounds like a good alternative to IM’s, especially when dealing with kids, bosses, or anyone who wants to argue back. The character limit also limits potential long-winded disagreements and logorrhea.

  24. posted by Derfor kan e-mail starte en diskussion « Verden Omkring Mig on

    […] her for at se et lille videoklip på cirka tre minutter om denne problemstilling. I samme moment kan du […]

  25. posted by Amy on

    I much prefer email, even for delicate situations because I can be very precise and censor for emotion. But I had to learn the hard way not to send emails when I’m angry! The only thing that bugs me about email communication is when people can’t express themselves clearly or concisely in writing, and what would have been a 5 or 10 minute conversation turns into a wordy 3-page muddle that takes me an hour to decipher.

  26. posted by Sam on

    hmmm, I see his point and quite understand that you do need to be careful with regards what you say and how you say it in emails. But as someone who is deaf and very very reluctant to use alternative methods of using the telephone – email is perfect – I am sure that I can’t live without it!! 😉

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  28. posted by Communication Preferences | Punk Rock Human Resources on

    […] found a video called Why Email Starts Fights via Unclutterer, one of my favorite websites. I’m not sure it meets his needs, but I like […]

  29. posted by Mark on

    My sister and I don’t talk much any more, because she lives in another province and insists on only communicating via email. She has more than once forwarded an email of mine to other family members which has caused major misunderstandings. I refuse to have “heart to hearts” in email, if you want to talk pick up the phone.

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