This is probably not news: what we communicate non-verbally is often more important than what actually comes out of our mouth in face-to-face communication.
Humans are attuned to instantly identify and process non-verbal cues. But what happens to non-verbal communication when technology like email or IM replaces face-to-face, verbal interaction? It doesn’t go away, and in fact, it often goes awry.
There are three mistakes we silly humans tend to make by trying to read non-verbal cues in e-mails and other online asynchronous communication (i.e., where the sender and the receiver do not have to be online at the same time):
- failure to remember context
- failure to distinguish salient information
- misinterpretation of silence
1. Context is everything
When we communicate face to face, we are in the same place at the same time with approximately similar understandings of our surroundings—e.g., weather, time of day, noise conditions, etc. With email, the receiver will most likely get our message at a different time, in a different place. That difference context inevitably affects how the message is interpreted and responded to.
Say you send someone an urgent message and don't get a reply right away. Before jumping to conclusions like "apparently my problem isn’t very important over there," think about context. Maybe your colleague is on vacation. Maybe she's in meetings. Maybe she dropped her iPhone in a glass of lemonade. Or maybe, you didn't word your email very well, which brings us to ...
2. The salient enemy
You send a six-paragraph e-mail detailing several suggestions, among which is one to highlight the colleague’s expertise on the website. The colleague writes back (eventually), "Good plan." One month later, when his picture and profile is on the web, he gets angry and demands it be removed. Although he had read the your e-mail and responded, he had focussed on other parts of the plan.
Catherine Cramton offers this advice: "highlight important messages and important parts of long messages. Questions that need to be addressed should be marked so that they are instantly apparent."
How should you highlight? Here's a couple suggestions:
- Put "Response Required" or "Action item" in the subject line, along with a brief description.
- For long emails, put a bulleted summary of action items or key points at the beginning of the email.
- Send your emails in HTML or RTF so you can use bold.
3. What is the sound of email silence?
One of the biggest mistakes we make is interpreting the meaning of silence. In this case, "silence" is the lag time between sending an e-mail and the response. Cramton’s study of over 50,000 e-mails indicated that silence meant all of the following at one time or another:
- I agree.
- I strongly disagree.
- I am indifferent.
- I am out of town.
- I am having technical problems.
- I don’t know how to address this sensitive issue.
- I am busy with other things.
- I did not notice your question.
- I did not realize that you wanted a response.
Think about emails you have not responded to immediately. How many of these resonate with you?
Given this, don't rush to interpret silence as consent, lack of interest or commitment, or impoliteness. It’s also a good practice to establish clear understandings about how often you will check for and respond to messages. Misinterpretations of silence will affect the relationship even after communication resumes.
And, if it's really, really important ... pick up the phone.
There are better internal digital strategies than email. If you'd like some help with your company's internal communications, contact NikComm today.