Communication Breakdown: The Hidden Ambiguities in Your Email Messages

Thank goodness for email! In the corporate world, email functions most notably to document our correspondence, and to simplify our business dealings. It eliminates the commitment of the time-devouring phone call, particularly when all we seek is the short answer to a quick question. Spam and junk mail aside, this medium has revolutionized our work lives, and added an element of accuracy to our transactions. Yet, in a certain matter of speaking, all of this praise can be diminished to wishful thinking. In fact, if we begin to take email for granted by not utilizing it carefully, if can actually work against us, stealing back much of the time we saved.

It Would Appear We Have a Failure to Communicate

My recent correspondence with a colleague leading up to our very first meeting illustrates my point in a manner which neither one of us saw coming. First, familiarize yourself with the following message chain, the subject line of which is “Confirming Wednesday”:

Me: Are you still clear for a meet-up on Wednesday at 10am? If so, would you like to choose a spot close to the train terminal to meet, or shall I suggest a place? I very much look forward to meeting you.

Colleague: We’re definitely on for tomorrow. I’m open to suggestions as to where we should go. I usually land at the terminal by 9:30am, so if you want to meet closer to that time, I’m fine with that as well.

Me: That works out ideally. I have an 8am breakfast meeting. How about we meet at Steve’s Sandwich Shop which is 3 blocks from the terminal?

Colleague: Perfect. See you then. Enjoy breakfast!

Everything seems perfectly clear on both ends, with no confusing details or alternative options, right? Well, what if I told you that my colleague arrived at the agreed-upon location at 10:00am, and not because his train was late, but because he assumed from our correspondence that that was our meeting time?

The truth is, there isn’t always a clear explanation for email miscommunication. It appears that the nature of email allows for unexplained ambiguities to occur from time to time, and it’s up to each of us to be creative in taking precautions. Here are a few of my most valuable email communication tips for meet-ups, assuring you a more efficient workday on the go:

Put Yourself In The Other Person’s Mind: Email equals writing, which can be far less effective than speaking when trying to convey tone, inflection, and for some, actual information. In general, try to compose your message not from your own perspective, but from the recipient’s perspective. This “out-of-body” exercise will let you deliver the content the way you would want it to be heard, decreasing the likelihood of a misread.

Be Cleverly Thorough: Use the subject line as the powerful tool it is. Don’t be shy about including an important detail or two, like the meeting time, even if you plan on restating the information in the message field. You won’t lose any points for repetitiveness, and you could save yourself some real headaches.

Get Specific: Even if it seems condescending, always confirm the address in addition to the name of the restaurant or coffee shop at which your meeting will take place. Everyone knows that chain establishments can often have multiple locations within close vicinity, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat waiting for a colleague whom was doing the same just 3 blocks away.

Trade Digits: Sounds elementary, but in our current digital culture we seem to have lost sight of its importance: Be sure to include your cell phone number in the email message, and ask for theirs as well. Travel hiccups are common in our busy city, and this old-fashioned form of reaching out can come in handy.

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