Weaponising emails, how to survive the siege mentality and become normalised.

The line crackled, hissed and then fused into a high screech sound, lasting about 20 seconds. A handshake was being established across a 28k modem. June 1997, AOL — Compuserve and my first email to an AOL customer service type marked my foray into cyber world. The days of handwritten letters were over!

Across the world, handwriting experts were about to be made redundant. Post office’s, it was believed, would shut down in droves and our communication lives were about to become simpler. Email gave you direct line of sight to your recipient, speculatively and targeted. You could, with a flick of the menu, become both snooper and guarantor. Yes you knew you were being read. Job done

Then it happened.

“I’m quite perplexed as I sent you an email about it”…. “You’re sacked”. “Pursuant to my last email when I clarified points 4 and 7 can you confirm that the direction you wish to take…” The follow up email becomes Monty Pythonesque. “Can you confirm from your last email, what I tried to confirm…”

The email has been weaponised. So long as a writer sends their shopping list of demands, it should be taken as fact that you the recipient fully understand. Well organised types would see it as a way of diarising events, leaving an orderly paper trail that acted as a staff, prepped for the come back. “I sent it to you in an email three weeks ago”.

Those who say they value their communication skills will send a three page equivalent crafted dossier expecting a point by point exchange, almost immediately. The response can be equally crushing. Responses within responses, like a matryoshka doll, so that the original email has come to resemble a bibliography from CERN.

We didn’t just weaponise emails, we became mendacious at it, personal assassins burying poison in our mails, waiting for the reader to absorb and agonise in stress, or otherwise we mined the paragraphs with bomblets in plain site. To you it was simple, it’s in the mail and you’ll be surprised how people who consider themselves intelligent don’t get this.

Those five points you want answering as your recipient is dealing with a stack of their own issues, work and home related, has created cognitive overload. It’s real. Trying to slay your attempt at offloading everything on your mind does not mean your recipient’s effortful approach to understand you, let alone reply, is obfuscation in action. “You didn’t answer my email”, how many times have you heard that.

Cognitive loading undoubtedly will mean, at some point, sooner or later, you will miss that something. It’s human nature, as famous psychologists Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky show in Thinking Fast and Slow.

The email is just a tool. How it’s used has gotten out of hand. Never mind the spamming from unknowns, the mis-sent mail in frustration, the cc to the wrong persons and mortifying cringe when you realise your mistake, or that the person emailing you about a serious matter couldn’t either walk over to you to, say “Hi. Do you have a moment?” or pick up the phone.

This super culture of emails is quite often destructive and debilitating. That’s not to say there isn’t a genuine attempt by many to impart information or share knowledge. Of course there is, but there’s also a coterie that use it as gotchas, booby traps or substitutes for a simple phone call.

If the height of a communications expert is to determine style, genre and grammar then emails have become their achilles. Jeff Bezos’ approach to power points has some resonance here. The .ppt when it emerged in 1987 as a business application redefined presentations. It focused the mind of the audience, created a shared experience and was the ultimate in legacy memory. No more note taking or laborious points chalked on boards. The .ppt became paped as the star as scores of phones snapped away at slides. It then morphed into a lazy substitute in knowledge.

Just because it’s on .ppt doesn’t make it fact. And lacing your slide with the exact same words you’re using to communicate to an audience misses the point. The .ppt is a trigger to pay attention, or should be. Things have got so strange that experts like Guy Kawasaki would have to tell us how we use it: sparse words, spares slides unless you want to powerpoint your audience to death. Jeff Bezos goes further. No .ppt. You have an idea you want to pitch him. Write it out and turn up to the board room. TED talks for a moment drew the attention solely on the speaker — as it should be.

Emails are the .ppt of a generation of slick communicators, or so they think, gone awol. If something is so damn serious pick up the phone, face up, send an email — one line, we need to meet to discuss x — and quit making the assumption just because you’ve sent that mail, it’s alright in the world.

One BBC executive, a former programme controller told me of his solution. When he returned from hols to find hundreds of emails, he’d delete all of them, If it was important, he said, they’d email back.

That’s one solution, but it doesn’t address the growing uncontrolled, uncaring, and dark philosophy of emails. What started out as an addition to our comms tools has become ubiquitous and we’ve let it be so. You could limit the word count, create a return to sender so those stray emails could be recalled automatically, or you could outright ban them which would be draconian.

Just as you wouldn’t expect to write hundreds of letters by hand and have them replied to faster than you’ve sent them off, and just as when you’re writing a letter you’re thinking about the transaction — what can I ask for and what can’t I? — you should bear some thought about how you use your emails.

While yes, the effort to face each other — when you’re transatlantic at worst — is impracticable, the solution of a more organised environment is to consider, just as many efficient businesses ask, “Do I need to call another meeting?” Does this need to be an email? Trust. Develop trust and transparency and kill the excessive emails.

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