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Email detox

By Pierre Wauters

Sitting in front of my PC, I open my mailbox. Among the junk mail, there is an email from a person I know; I open it and ... holly cow, what is this? My throat gets tight, my blood pressure rises, my pulse races.. I re-read it a couple of times just to make sure but each reading makes me feel worse. Then I hit the Reply button and start typing... (It is at that very moment that my daughter comes to me wanting to play and I push her away saying that I am busy doing work)

Feels familiar ? Most of us use email daily. We get a lot, we send a lot. We believe that it is an important activity in our lives. This is work, it has priority, the kids can wait.

Well, not so long ago, there was no email and there were no cellphones, there was no texting and no Internet. Were people not communicating better though? In our century, with all that technology at our fingertips, we should be the best communicators in the universe. 

The locals in Vilcabamba don't use email. For a start, most don't have a computer, let alone an internet connection. What they do have is a stronger sense of family and community. They spend time together and talk. Have you noticed that when there is an event in Vilcabamba where hundreds of locals gather at a set time on the square, there never seem to be any announcement anywhere. Often I wonder, how did they know that at 9 PM tonight, there was going to be such and such performance on the square? There is apparently a strong network in place.

I am doing property development here and this is an activity that requires good communication. Yesterday, on top of our usual activities, we had a second team on site working on the building of a new bridge across the river, that is: an engineer, an excavator, a maestro, 6 workers. At the same time I was working with the neighbours on a water supply from their property to mine. It all went surprising well. People work efficiently together, they look happy, and we just communicate directly, face to face. Of course, this requires the boss (me) to be there, on site, at some ungodly hour in the morning and go back and forth on my motorcycle to catch up with the scattered teams. Then, on the same day, I needed to resolve some issue with neighbours who were engaging is some development that could potentially be detrimental to my property. Again, we set a time, met in a room and talked it through. This time I had a translator to help. What needed to be said was said and everybody included myself left the room happy with nothing further to mulch about. Problem solved, let's move on to the next one. Some days, I am exhausted but this is a small price to pay to get results.

The point is that serious misunderstandings are rare (only small ones, easy to address) and when things do go wrong as they always do, we correct them immediately with a little face to face chat and "una caja de cervezas".

Compare this with our modern technologically advanced world of communications! That is the world that I was living in in New Zealand when I was doing software architecture and development. My last job in "cubicle land" was a disaster in terms of rapports between people. I did not realise how bad it was at the time as this all looked "normal" to me but now I can see it. The "cubicle dwellers" often used emails to discuss things with their immediate neighbours, instead of getting up, walking 5 meters (at most) and just talking to them. What a pathetic site it was to watch co-workers get angry and shoot emails at each others, cc-ing the boss on each email... We did not know that the boss had set up a policy on the email server to discard every email that had his address in the cc box, so he would only receive emails addressed directly to him. But I diverge. 

Here in Vilcabamba, most people have a good heart and the best intentions but in several instances, I  found it harder to deal with the people who come from the so-called "first world" and speak the same language as me than with the locals despite the language barrier. Between us first-worlders, we tend to use email, as a matter of habit I suppose, and with emails, things seem to turn to custard sooner or later, I mean 'disaster', lost or aborted friendships, harsh words, misunderstandings that nobody bothers to correct ... I think that we just cannot communicate well, as if we had lost that basic skill.

Or maybe we never had that skill. It is a fact that at school, leaning how to communicate is not a high priority item on the curriculum, if it is there at all. In particular, how to write a decent email is not something that is taught. We learn how to format and formulate a letter but that is about it and who uses letters nowadays? When it comes to emails, it seems that there are no rules and anything goes. Just spit out whatever you feel like saying and click send. I often cringe when I get an email like this:

I was under the impression that you were going to contact Judie yesterday. Obviously you didn't. We have to get that agreement signed by tomorrow night.

- M

  Some people find that format acceptable and will tell you that it is for the sake of efficiency that they don't:

  • say "hi"
  • address you by your name (e.g. Hi Pierre) like a person
  • say something nice as a matter of introduction and ending
  • finish with something like "Best Regards" or "Cheers"
  • sign their name in full

We could rewrite this email with minimal effort:

Hi Pierre,

How are you? You must be busy and maybe you forgot to call Judie yesterday? Remember that we need to get that agreement signed tomorrow. It is important. Please let me know if I can help.

Best Regards

Much better !

Emails are a particularly risky form of communication because they totally lack a way to convey "body language". In the first version of the email above, how do I know whether the sender is really upset and scolding me or just reminding me? There is no body language to help. The sentence "Obviously you didn't" is negative, prone to upset and probably unnecessary. It is to address this to a degree that "emoticons" have been invented. Emoticons allow somebody to write for example: "You are a real pain :-)" The little smiley face :-) at the end of the sentence indicates that you are saying this a certain way and don't really mean it literally. However, one can only go that far using this technique.

To the first email, a possible answer could be:

I take good note of your 'reminder'. Will advise you later.

- P

Whereas to the second format, a possible answer could be:

Hi Mary,

I am fine thank you.
You are right, I have been so busy that I forgot to call Judie. My mistake.
I will call her right now and let you know if there is any issue with the agreement.
If you don't hear from me, it means that all is well.
Have a great day.


You see how things easily go sour with emails ?

"Words are only words" I said to someone recently, in the middle of a heated argument, seeing that we were having one of these exchanges where words cross each others and that we were getting nowhere. What I meant was that when we use a word in a sentence, we attach meaning to that word, but what the other person receives on the other side of the communication channel, albeit being the same word, is possibly associated with a different meaning. That is what I meant by saying "words are only words". Now, it happened that even the word "word" can be associated with different meanings and what I got back from the other person was a sharp reply telling me that the "given word" is as important as the written word, implying that by saying "words are only words" I was actually meaning that if I say something and it is not in writing, in a contract for example, it is not worth much. In other words, I was admitting that I was not a man "of his word". Wow, I thought, that is really interesting that we cannot even agree on the meaning of the word "word".

Emails of course are made out of words and nothing else, no facial expression, no tone of voice, no movement of the hands etc... and like I said, we need to realise in an email more than anywhere else that "words are only words".

Using emails is fine, particularly to:
  • clarify in writing what has been discussed
  • send pictures or other attachments
  • keep in touch with family or friends overseas (only sending positive thoughts)
  • do business with people who cannot be reached otherwise

Using emails is, in my opinion, counter-indicated to:

  • convey any form of negative energy such as to tell off, criticise, ridicule other people
  • express negative feelings

The key point is "negative" versus "positive" energy. An email could be qualified in terms of the energy that it contains, the more positive energy the better. I believe that if we managed to strip off all emails of their negative energy content, we'd achieve much better communication. Negative energy in an email takes many different forms (lies, innuendos, sarcasm ...). We intuitively know when we receive an email that is turbo charged with negative energy. What is less obvious is when we are sending one ourselves.

Let's give our emails a detox, let's cleanse them, strip them of all negative energy. One way to detoxify an email is to wait before sending it, hold it as a draft, and re-read it the next day, looking for any sign of negativity in it. When we manage to do that, result are truly amazing and we find more often than not that that the email just does not get sent at all !

A better way to cleanse an email is to delete it before sending it. When things get a bit tense or have the potential to go bad, let's make the effort to talk directly but not necessarily immediately. You see, another skill that we have lost is called "patience". Again, watching the locals in Vilcabamba is a great lesson. It takes them hours to go up that mountain with the donkey to bring the lunch (el almuerzo) to some worker on the farm or to go and milkthat cow that just dropped a calf. We are used to immediacy and when we send an email, we kind of expect an answer within a short period of time. When we receive an email, we want to reply immediately too. But I ask: Isn't it better to have a good positive meeting tomorrow or next week than to generate a bunch of emails right now that achieve nothing ?

I suspect that another reason why email communication is so widespread is that it is much easier to hold one's position than when in a face to face situation. Face to face usually means compromise and that of course hurts. It is more comfortable to be righteous and flawless in emails than having to admit less than perfection in a verbal exchange.

To wrap this up, I recently received an email from a person I respect and to which I honestly did not know how to answer positively. Instead of digging myself into a hole, I sent the generic reply shown below:

Dear ...,

The communication “programming” that most first world people live by dictates that we reply to emails, texts, voice mails, pick up the phone when it rings etc and, if we don’t, we are considered impolite or the sender thinks that we are avoiding him or some other form of negative thought.

So, in line with this programming, I am replying to your email to let you know that I have received it, read it and that I have nothing to say. I have run through many scenarios of the possible chain of communication that could come from your email and, so far, a positive flow of communication has not become apparent. Until one does and a positive energy, good result for all, that enhances our friendship becomes apparent, I’d rather not pursue a conversation (especially via email) that is highly probable to projecting negative energy and outcome.

If you find yourself having negative thoughts because I have not specifically addressed what you said, then I ask that you take a moment to consider your own thoughts and find a more positive line of thinking.

I look forward to the opportunity presenting itself where we meet (spontaneity), have an impromptu drink and discuss with light hearts your email as part of a wider conversation.

With good friendship and love,