Yesterday I wrote about the trouble with e-mail and how in the workplace it has become a substitute for more personal forms of communication. I’ve been thinking about this issue and how there are times when e-mail does function well as a proxy for face-to-face discussion. I think these instances are uncommon, particularly in the business world, but they are possible.
Quite a few years ago, I met Amy at a photography class at UVic. We both took an interest in each other’s work–I was really drawn to her free-form style, a direct contrast to my sharply defined efforts–and we became instant friends. At the time, both Amy and I were provincial government employees, which meant we sat in front of monitors all day. As a result, e-mail became our primary mode of communication. Over many, many months we sent long, elaborate e-mails to each other, discussing pretty much everything, often baiting each other with provocative topics as we got more comfortable and daring. It was fantastic! I’ve said to Amy, years later, our friendship very much established, that if it wasn’t for e-mail we may not have become such good friends.
E-mail served us so well because we both enjoyed delving deeply into topics and picking apart at nuance. This isn’t new territory for the written word, of course, as any number of journals and long-form reporting demonstrate, but it is uncommon for e-mail. (Personally, e-mail as experienced with Amy very closely resembles my communication style during face-to-face conversation with certain people.) This sort of e-mail experience requires a certain amount of trust, respect and time, and a person willing and able to maintain the momentum. And in most business applications, I’d question whether any of these criteria apply. Not everyone enjoys a good debate or discussion, electronically or otherwise, and that’s fine. And in day-to-day work there’s really little place for missives longer than a few sentences; I’m sure no one would appreciate an e-mail treatise on corporate values by their manager! But in certain situations, e-mail doesn’t have to be the slave to management directives or badly designed invites to staff retirement parties. It can achieve a lot more.