Sometimes we use the written word to shield ourselves from uncomfortable conversations.
The classic example is the “Dear John” letter, or a written message from a romantic partner ending a relationship, but these kinds of messages arise in business scenarios as well. For example, we may need to sever a professional relationship, criticize a subordinate’s performance, or otherwise broach an uncomfortable subject with a colleague.
To be fair, we often have good reasons for writing an email or letter for these messages.
We might want to get the message “in writing” so that we have a permanent record or audit trail that can be tracked. Writing can also de-personalize what might otherwise turn into a charged encounter.
All too often, however, we don’t even really think about whether we use speaking vs. writing.
The email habit is just so ingrained that we automatically type up a message and hit send, forgetting that there are serious advantages of speaking over writing. Messages that take us half an hour to carefully, painstakingly draft might take only a couple of minutes of discussion on the phone.
Further, de-personalizing the message can lead to miscommunication and/or bad feelings. Writing strips away non-verbal cues--facial expression, eye contact, vocal intonation, body movement, and more--that add depth and nuance to the exchange. Without that valuable information helping us to understand how our messages are being received, the risk of misinterpretation and miscommunication skyrockets.
In fact, it can invite negative reactions even when they’re not warranted!
Psychologist Daniel Goleman argues that people have a “negativity bias” toward email. According to The Harvard Business Review, he says “that if the sender feels positive about an email, then the receiver usually feels neutral. And if the sender feels neutral about the message, then the receiver typically feels negative about it. It’s as if every message you send gets automatically downgraded a few positivity notches by the time someone else receives it.”
That’s not to say email and the written word cannot be used constructively even in difficult situations. Quite the opposite: sometimes they’re preferable.
Forbes points out that emails provide people space to process the message and think through their response; the “immediacy” of an in-person conversation isn’t always helpful. It’s also far easier to make emails to-the-point and purpose-driven, because cultural mandates often require a certain amount of “small talk” in phone calls and in-person conversations. In fact, emails are often much more efficient communication channels because they can be “batched” and processed at our convenience.
There’s no set answer to the question of which channel is the “right” one. Knowing when to favor a written message over picking up the phone, or the reverse, is a communication skill that must be developed.
Either way, always take a moment to think through the intended communication. What are its purpose and goal? With the answer to that question in mind, determine the best channel or medium for the interaction.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.