Sending many emails per day has become the norm for most. Technology, globalisation, and increased work flexibility have contributed to making it our primary mode of communication at work. But at what cost?
Research suggests that only 7% of our communication is based on words alone, with the other 93% coming from body language, facial expression, and intonation. This makes email a medium that is completely prone to misunderstandings, confusion, and mistrust: all are markers of poor, ineffective communication.
When it comes to building trust, traditional signals we use include voice intonation and smiling. In the absence of these traditional ‘trust markers’, speed of response has become the primary indicator of trust in online communication. This creates a series of new challenges to trust-building online. First and foremost it’s rarely possible to reply to emails as soon as you would like. Further, in the ambiguous world of email, fast responses can also indicate desperation, demanding-ness, or not having enough work to do.
What does all of this mean for us psychologically? Email communication induces increased anxiety. Our minds are wired to seek closure and completion, a key principle of Gestalt psychology. When we send emails, it is as if we have communicated into a void. We cannot physically perceive our email’s receipt, nor observe the body language, facial expression, or other reactions of its recipient. Until we receive a response to our email, our mind remains in a prolonged state of uncertainty. The more important the email we have sent, the worse this is. The emotional response this creates within us damages our peace of mind and/or interferes in our relationship with the ‘non-responder’. We may like the recipient less or infer things about what they think/feel about us, how they work, or what they are like as people.
All in all, this research suggests that in-person communication is the most effective means by which to build trust, develop understanding, and rsolve conflicts. When the stakes are high, move the conversation to a face-to-face interaction. Equally, at the first sign of misunderstanding or ambiguity, consider picking up the phone, or meeting in-person, to avoid any miscommunications.
Ironically, our reliance on online communication at work and in our personal lives makes in-person meetings more impactful than ever.