Email is an offensive business

Apparently one in three of us are regularly offended by incorrectly-read emails. So few?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In a survey of 1,900 UK workers, email provider GMX found a third of us are erroneously offended by work emails on a regular basis – usually because we’ve mis-read what was being said, or misunderstood the tone. It also causes us great angst if emails are too long, or too short, or too slow, or too fast. In fact there are so many ways to be offended by emails that we’re not sure we believe the two-thirds that don’t have their noses regularly put out of joint. Perhaps the survey came by email and they didn’t understand the question?

Clearly people rely on email to communicate in the office to a ridiculous extent these days – we’ve worked in some places where people sitting within ten yards of each other would email rather than deign to hold an actual conversation. But this impersonal style of communication has obvious drawbacks; notably that recipients don’t have the benefit of tone of voice and body language. So misunderstandings are much more common. Time constraints are also a problem: when people start firing back rapid replies, or skim-reading messages too quickly, there’s always a chance that someone is going to get the wrong end of the stick. All in all, over 40% of us have apparently experienced this in the last year.

In some ways the recession has helped matters. Waiting around for a reply to a carefully crafted email was a major irritant to 70% of people surveyed (a delay of more than three days is enough to make most workers antsy). But in these troubled times, people seem determined to be more efficient – a quarter said they’d tried to reply to emails more quickly. On the other hand, this probably increases the chances of them accidentally offending someone, so this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Perhaps more significantly, hardly any of them have adapted their tone or style to suit the climate – and therein lies the real problem, as we see it. Replying quickly is much less useful than replying appropriately. Why do people seem to think it’s perfectly ok to be brusque, equivocal and occasionally downright rude over email, when they’d never dream of being any of these things in person? The rules of normal polite discourse don’t go out of the window just because you’re corresponding in a different medium. Although this is hardly rocket science, a lot of people clearly don’t get it – and it’s causing a lot of energy to be expended on unnecessary offence. So MT’s Campaign for Better-Mannered Emails starts here…

In today's bulletin:

Spending forecast grim as City tax take shrinks
Microsoft and Yahoo to agree tie-up at last?
Editor's blog: Who should run ITV?
Email is an offensive business
HMRC gives one more chance to tax dodgers

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