Email is the Root of All Evil

Well, not really. I mean, I don’t believe that. But I hear it all the time:

“Email is the root of all evil.”

“Email is an inefficient method of communication.”

“I hate email! Just call me! Just come see me! It’s easier.”

Email has garnered a great deal of resentment in the workplace these last couple of decades. Someone said to me recently, “Well, when email started, we all thought it was just going to be a way to exchange quick messages. We didn’t expect it to become our principal means of communication.”

Well, you don’t always get what you expect. And while unfulfilled expectations are the root of frustration, unexpected outcomes are not always evil. Our workplace communications problems did not begin with email. We always had them. Even before email, workplaces were littered with misunderstandings, rumors, information leaks, half-stories and half-truths. Poorly written interoffice memos caused as many problems as do poorly written emails. (And has anyone seen an interoffice memo lately?)

And yet a lot of people cling to this belief that email is somehow more flawed than the in-person conversation, the phone call or the (shudder!) staff meeting.

It’s true, email introduced some new problems, and made some existing problems bigger. You can’t retract an email once it’s sent. You can’t. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. You know all those emails you get, saying “So-and-so would like to recall the email ‘The boss is a scum-sucking turd’?” Yeah, not only do those recall emails tell you an awful lot about what the “recalled” email said, they’re also always preceded in your inbox by the email So-and-so (your ex-co-worker) wanted to recall. In these days of email-enabled phones and tablets, even if your mail server will let you pull an email from its data store, someone’s already gotten a copy that’s not going away. But you can go pull a memo off the boss’s desk before he reads it, or rip it off the bulletin board and at least mitigate the damage.

You can’t destroy an email. It’s always going to be somewhere, no matter how faithfully you delete the trash. If you wrote something incriminating in an email, you just contributed evidence that can and will be used. Along the same lines, there’s no such thing as a “confidential” email. Someone apart from the sender and the receiver can always access it.

(I refer here to popular email systems like Exchange / Outlook, gmail, Yahoo, Office365, etc. I’m sure the secure email system does exist somewhere… and it may not have been hacked. Yet.)

But you can trash a memo.

Finally, there’s pretty much no upper limit on how many people can be given a copy of your email within seconds of you sending it. It costs the recipient no more to forward five hundred thousand copies of an email or to put a copy of it up on Facebook than it does the sender to send the original. At least, to circulate your interoffice memo far and wide, someone had to put forth a little effort and contribute to the death of at least one tree.

And, because it’s so immediate, email gets a lot more people in a lot more trouble a lot more often than interoffice memos ever did (though inter-office memos got me in trouble enough, back in the day.) It’s just a little too easy to call the boss a scum-sucking turd and tell everyone when you do it via email.

But, really, these very troublesome aspects of email are not what I hear people referencing when they complain about email. No, in my experience, what most people dislike about email is that it’s hard to understand what the author is saying. Email is considered to be unclear, lacking in subtlety. “You can’t see someone’s face in an email. You can’t hear their tone of voice or see their body language. You don’t know what they’re thinking.”

Okay. That’s true. It was also true of another method of communication which used to be the one we used exclusively over long distances, until the telegraph, the telephone and the SMTP protocol were invented: Letter-writing.

What is email, if it’s not letter-writing? Written correspondence? “Well,” I hear a lot of people say, “Letter-writing was different. People took their time writing letters. People weren’t lazy when they wrote letters. They knew letters were permanent and would be read and saved, so they took pride in their content and their penmanship.”

Um… Hello? You do realize that the average lifespan of binary data in disk-based storage is a helluva a lot longer than the average lifespan of a piece of paper, don’t you? (Actually, you probably don’t. Because data can be “erased” with the stroke of a few keys or the click of a mouse, a lot of people think it’s less permanent than paper. Which is why they print so much paper, “For backup.” Because paper can survive fires and floods so much better than a computer’s hard drive can.)

Email lasts forever. Email is saved. Email is shared. If you’re not taking pride and care in the content of what you put into an email, it’s not email’s fault, it’s yours. And email is not the root of all evil… you are.

Why is email the platform upon which so much poor communication is built? Well, I think it’s because more people use email than ever wrote letters. More people are communicating than ever communicated before. So email is bringing to light a very sad fact of the human condition:

A lot of us don’t know how to think.

We don’t. What goes on in our heads is a chaotic mass of conflicting impulses and half-formed argument. The emails we write, therefore, do not contain organized thought and carefully structured argument.

“Oh, but, when I speak to someone, we can communicate so much better.”

Well, maybe. I suppose, when you have two people somewhat muddled thoughts, and you let them bounce their half-formed thoughts off each other, they stand a better chance of developing one coherent argument which they both understand. You also stand a great chance of having a conversation in which one person dominates, and the other person never gets to advance an argument at all.

If you really think spoken communication is superior to written communication, email or otherwise, I challenge you to listen to people speak. Most people speak in a very disorganized fashion. They don’t get to the point. They don’t put the most important fact, or the central point of their argument, first. They ramble. And they often seem terrified that they will somehow be made to stop speaking, before they’ve had their say, even if they don’t know what that “say” is. And so they’ll reserve the right to keep speaking by not shutting up, in some kind of informal filibuster. They’ll end every sentence with “So…” in order to indicate that they’re not done. Even if they are done. They’ll repeat the same points over and over again.

This is particularly true about speaking in meetings. I’ve noticed that every meeting, except those run by the best of facilitators, reaches a point that I think of as “We know the meeting’s over, but we don’t want to go back to our desks and work.” People are afraid to let a meeting end, because, oh God, what if we forgot to say something we were supposed to say? What if we forgot to ask some question we were supposed to ask? We’ve got to keep talking until we’re sure! We may never see these people again in this life!

Usually, at this point in the meeting, I’m hanging my head and thinking, “We should be so lucky.” Meanwhile, those around me are asking questions no one needs the answer to, today, tomorrow, or ever.

All because we don’t know how to organize our thoughts and communicate efficiently. And here I’m not just talking about email or letters. Organized thought it important in a two-way conversation as well. After all, if, as noted above, you never stop talking, the other person never gets a chance to say anything. Or he has to finally interrupt you, or tell you to shut up. And that might offend you. And then communication becomes even less likely, because you’re pissed.

Chaotic thinking is the root of all this evil, and its effect on communication is only a symptom. Chaotic thinking, or non-thinking, impinges on our ability to solve problems. I help a lot of people solve various kinds of IT issues. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve asked someone, “What have you attempted so far?” They’ll name some step, and I’ll ask “Why did you try that?” They say, “I don’t know.” I ask, “What did you expect that action to accomplish?” But they don’t know. They’re just trying something–anything–to see if the problem will go away.

Nor is this trial and error. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trial and error. Making mistakes is a fantastic way to learn. But, for trial and error to be useful, you have to know in advance what outcome you’re expecting, you have to know if your trial produced it, and you have to record the success or failure, as well as the conditions of the trial, if you’re going to learn anything from it. Too often then answer I get to “Well did this thing you tried work?” is “I don’t remember! I’ve tried so many things I’ve lost track!”

This is not trial and error. This is one monkey, sitting at a typewriter alongside 99 others, with a random chance of creating a Shakespeare play this century. These proponents of the “just do something!” school are not using their rational minds to project outcomes and observe experimental results of attempted solutions, they’re just, essentially, offering sacrifices to the gods by doing something, and hoping that the gods, not their rational abilities, will solve the problem.

And speaking of gods, modern spirituality is full of examples of religious leaders enabling this kind of anti-rationality. I’ll call out Barbara De Angelis, Ph.D., only because she’s the latest example I’ve come across. Last Sunday, my Sunday School class read her essay “An Invitation to God”, in which she said:

“A lot of us don’t give ourselves a chance to hear what our heart is telling us because we’re trying to hear through our mind. We think, “I sat there waiting for God to give me a message, but all that came was, ‘I have to pick up my dry cleaning,’ and, ‘My back hurts,’ and ‘I should feed the cat.’ ” Maybe you think God is not communicating, but it only seems that way because you’re waiting for God to speak through your mind, and that’s not the abode of God. God will not appear through the mind, because the mind separates us from God.”

 Excerpt From: Richard Carlson & Benjamin Shield. “Handbook for the Spirit.” iBooks.

Dr. De Angelis is only one example. A lot of spiritual leaders and theologians make this argument. I don’t mean to ridicule her. There was a lot to like in her essay. And I agree that it’s important to quiet the mind sometimes of its frantic, compulsive thinking. But the rational mind is not the enemy.

A lot of people count on religion and spirituality to bring them happiness and fulfillment. When spiritual commentators and gurus say that our rational minds stand in the way of happiness and fulfillment, they’re saying something risky. Without rationality, you can’t solve problems, you can’t communicate, you can’t live your life. Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, if you believe in a benevolent deity, especially one who is responsible in some way for the gifts you possess, why would you claim that he or she wants you to reject the greatest of them?

Our rational minds are important. Very important. They’re what set us apart from the rest of the animals. They’re what allow us to solve our problems. We need to know how to use them. And we need to practice. So, when you go to send that email… read it over. Think about it. Be proud of it. It may be with the human race for a long time to come.

And it’s not the root of all evil.

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