The Unclutterer, linked to an interesting video explaining why the author, Edward Muzio, believes email is a flawed form of communication. Since Unclutterer is all about removing distractions and counter-productive clutter, both physical and mental, I assume the post relates to how email fails to be tidy.
It’s a common for people to say, casually and unchallenged, that our modern reliance on email is inadequate to the task of communicating. The basic thesis is that the medium itself is to blame for misunderstandings because it fails to capture the tone and gestures one hears and sees in real life. Mr. Muzio illustrates this idea vividly with a pie chart showing that “only 7 percent of what we say is conveyed through words — tone and visual cues make up the other 93 percent.” I don’t dispute the general idea: we gather meaning from more than our words. However, I believe Muzio’s conclusion that emails should only be used to relay facts and data is unsupported. He concludes with the following statement:
Remember, if you get on the phone, you pick up tone again. You pick up 38% of the information. If you can get to the person in person, you get this 55% back as well. Don’t make the mistake of using only 7% of the information only email to solve a complex issue. It won’t work, and your email will start a fight.
These are my three criticisms of the argument.
1. It disregards history
2. It is illogical
3. It is a misstatement and simplification of the cited research by Dr. Albert Mehrabian
The idea that email is inadequate because it is just written words without tone or body language, immediately brings to mind hearing- and vision-impaired people. It also brings to mind long distance courtships, business transactions, and scientific arguments conducted entirely by mail. Indeed, historians would be shocked to learn the written word is so inadequate to the task of communicating.
Even accepting Muzio’s figures, his conclusion that email misses 93% of what is being conveyed is erroneous since it’s just as logical to say that email avoids cluttering meaning with two more layers of potential misunderstanding. He also implies that having access to all the cues is enough to avoid misunderstanding. Clearly that is not so, or there would not be brawls. Muzio seems to have started from the premise that fights erupt from email exchanges, therefore email must be to blame, and these fights wouldn’t have happened in a different medium. Fights, misunderstandings do result from email exchanges, but it’s too big of a leap to assume the medium is to blame.
I looked into Dr. Mehrabian’s work, at least as it is reported, to understand better if he was just another Cited Authority, and found that many people feel his research is misquoted or misrepresented. This site, for example, discusses common misrepresentations along side the research (as the author understands it, of course).
Muzio’s suggestion that we should only use email only to “to convey facts and data, and when no emotion or sensitive issues are involved” is based on faulty reasoning. Indeed, I am not convinced it’s more important to get just enough meaning, rather than every single bit of available meaning.
In any case, Muzio’s general conclusion that miscommunication happens is correct, and he’s right to consider how to avoid it. Email can be a time sucking vampire, and would be loathe to trade my inbox with the Unclutterer’s inbox.
More on my own ideas about email and communicating tomorrow.