Lost in the so-called "Email Scandal" surrounding Hillary Clinton's campaign for President is the fact that email is a terrible way to communicate anything other than names, dates, and times (just the facts!). Anything else can be easily misinterpreted.
Farhad Manjoo addresses this problem with regard to the apparent hacking of Clinton campaign email and the taken-out-of-context message from Jennifer Palmieri, the campaign's communication director. In a New York Times column, Manjoo writes:
...there’s something even more pernicious than weak security here. The deeper problem with email is that it has never quite settled on a social mode. An email can be as formal as a legal letter or as tossed off as drive-by insult. This invites confusion. For instance, in context, Ms. Palmieri’s “Take the money!!” doesn’t sound so bad — it looks like a quick, half-cheeky way to end an overlong discussion. If it were said on a phone call or an instant message, “Take the money” would have sounded like an entirely normal way to end the conversation.
In 2008, one of my blog posts addressed this email problem in business communication. I wrote:
Email appears to be replacing the telephone and even meetings (heaven forbid!) as the primary mode of communication, especially in global companies. This is causing miscommunication to be the norm rather than the exception. Non-verbal behavior is an essential element of face-to-face communication, but, obviously, totally absent in email communication. In her blog post “Why Email Humor Falls Flat (and What to Do About it), Jessica Stillman cited research reported in an article in Psychology Today that found that sarcasm and humor were communicated in email messages only about half the time. She concluded:
Email strips us of the smiles, widened eyes and posture signals that help us convey our meaning and mood, while leaving intact our conviction that we’re being perfectly clear.
One commenter to the blog post wrote:
As a manger of several extremely competent senior professionals on a virtual global team where email is the main mode of GTD, I spend more time managing the impact of email misunderstandings than any other single thing.
When email is the only mode of communication between two people, the danger of miscommunication is even more serious. In research conducted by Janice Nadler at Northwestern University, email negotiations between law students were much more likely to end in agreement when the negotiations were preceded by a getting-to-know-you telephone conversation. Without voice contact much is lost in building rapport, without which there is a tendency to make negative assumptions about what is in or not in email messages.
I find that even simple comments in email can be interpreted in many different ways by the receiver. Take for example the statement, “I think you handled that well.” The sender knows exactly what he means. You, on the other hand, can understand this in different ways depending on which word you put the accent and what meaning you attribute to that accent. If you put the emphasis on “I”, you might say to yourself that he thinks I handled the situation well but nobody else thinks so. If you put the emphasis on “think”, you might say to yourself that he’s not sure if I handled it well. If you put the emphasis on “you”, you might say to yourself that I handled it well but nobody else handled it well. If you put the emphasis on handled, you might think that he thinks I manipulated the situation for personal gain. If you put the emphasis on “that”, it might be interpreted as sarcasm. And if you put the emphasis on “well”, you might wonder if “well” is good enough. In face-to-face and phone communication you hear the word emphasis and tone of the statement.
This might sound like an extreme over-analysis of a short, innocuous sentence, but in the hurried, stressful environment of a workplace, this is the kind of instantaneous interpretation that occurs. And in a global environment, language and culture increase the likelihood of this kind of interpretation leading to miscommunication with possibly dire consequences.
The use of email as the principal mode of communication in business, government, and politics has increased since I wrote that post six years ago. At the same time, hacking and Freedom of Information Act requests in the U.S. have exposed more and more private email to public scrutiny. I can only surmise that many people are being misunderstood and unfairly maligned because of this still popular way to send messages.