Handle With Care: The 5 Dangers of Email

by Shana Montesol Johnson

I got my first email account when I was a freshman in college.  I had heard about this cool service being offered at the computer lab, and signed up right away.  That was 20 years ago — this month, as a matter of fact.

And ever since then, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with email.  Don’t most of us have one?

We love the technology that helps us stay connected to the important people in our lives, no matter where we travel or what country we end up living in.  (I considered it a hardship when I had NO email access in 1995 when I worked as a community development volunteer in the Philippines; I now envy Peace Corps Volunteers and others who have email, not to mention Facebook and Twitter access, during their postings.)

We hate the sense of dread conjured up by the headline in our email program: “You have 652 unread messages” (or worse!)  We hate the Sisyphean task of clearing out the in-box, only to have it fill up again with more messages overnight.  We hate how the relaxing vibe of our vacation is undone by the rapid-fire exchange of messages upon our return to work.

Email has become a huge part of our work lives.  I’ve observed that this is especially true for those working in international development organizations, which seem to run on mail.  And why not?  It has so many benefits:

  • It’s cheap
  • It’s easy to use
  • It’s convenient
  • It works across time zones
  • It’s relatively low-tech (you don’t even need much bandwidth for it)
  • It allows travelers to contribute to projects while on the road

Yet there’s a dark side of email, too.  Aside from the obvious way that email can overwhelm us, here are 5 reasons we need to handle it with care.

1.  Email Can Be Deceptively Time-Consuming

It may seem more expedient to fire off a quick email than to hold a face-to-face meeting or pick up the phone (there’s all that small talk…).  However, it could take you more time to settle something this way.  While the beauty of email is that it is asynchronous – you don’t have to be online and focused on the email message at the same time as the person you’re communicating with – that can also lead to more interruptions, task-switching, and time-consuming back and forth messages.

2. Email Can Be Dangerously Emboldening

Email allows us to hide behind our words; it’s much easier to say something snarky in an email than to a colleague’s face.  When we receive a frustrating message from someone, it’s all too easy to hit <reply> — or worse, <reply all>! – and bang out a scathing response.  While this might feel liberating at first, the consequences quickly sink in.

3.  Email May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Email encourages us to sit at our desks – and we know how deadly that can be.  After all, research has shown that that the longer you sit, the shorter your average life span.

4.  Email Slows Down Relationship-Building

I once heard about a manager who had been named country director of an international development organization.  The office staff was curious about and eager to get to know their new boss.  After he assumed his post, some staff members were shocked and frustrated when he repeatedly sent them emails from behind his closed office door down the hall, rather than come and speak with them face-to-face.  Needless to say, they did not build a great relationship.

Guess what: to build effective working relationships with people, it helps to spend time with them, and talk to them face-to-face.  Hiding behind our computers is not going to help – we need to get out of our offices and interact with our colleagues.

5.  Email Can Lead to Misunderstandings (Especially in Cross-cultural Settings)

Email is a limited communication vehicle because it doesn’t include non-verbal ways of conveying meaning.  Experts suggest that between 50-80% of all human communications are non-verbal.  Without the powerful cues of non-verbal communication (e.g., tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, etc.) the chances of miscommunication are higher.  This is especially risky in a cross-cultural context.  We should tread lightly when in email mode.

I’d love to hear your feedback on this topic.  Dare I invite you to send me an email message?  Maybe it’s better if we stick to the Comments section below…

Photo by Splinter
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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Howell Alipalo

Always a timely topic. Good point on the need to foster relationships, not just correspondence. I have found that Skype conversations with my counterparts in the field help to continue building the rapport and the relationship that we started when I on mission. Sure Skype can be disruptive a bit but I have found it is less alienating, which is a risk to consultants in particular. I also constantly encourage my clients to call me at my home office and on my cell phone. My reliability through these mediums have helped develop a phone habit between us that builds trust and makes for more dynamic work all around.


Shana Montesol Johnson

Melissa, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I love hearing how Skype has helped you build on the foundation of face-to-face interactions with your field counterparts — that’s a great suggestion. I can see how it’s less alienating — the video feature enables us to regain those non-verbal cues. I wonder if that also helps when communicating across cultures.

I also like your “phone habit.” Oddly, in this age of hyper-connectedness with email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. it seems we have fewer conversations on the good old-fashioned land line (or even by cell — I tend to use mine mostly for SMS). Thanks for the reminder about these lower-tech but still powerful ways to communicate.


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