The Nature of Email
Before the age of email, memos and business letters dominated the world of business correspondence. Memos were used for internal communication with other employees of one’s firm, while letters typically went to clients, vendors, and others outside the firm. Memos were often mass-printed (or mass-copied), and perhaps mass-stapled, after which an employee, or multiple employees, would place them one at a time into recipients’ mailboxes. Letters were printed, put in envelopes, sealed, stamped, and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Both memos and letters may have had attachments in the form of reports or other documents.
Today a third category of business correspondence — email — has encroached on the traditional turf of memos and letters. At the same time, it has introduced a new type of correspondence that blends elements of both spoken and written communication styles. Figure 1 below illustrates the current correspondence landscape.
Suppose you email a client about a new product your company has just introduced. That email could be considered an approximate electronic substitute for a letter. After all, if the year were ı993, you might mail that client a printed letter containing the same information. Even today, you might do that if you wanted to have a particular aesthetic effect. Nice letterhead with a strong corporate logo has an impact difficult to replicate in email.
While hard-copy memos are rare today, their electronic equivalent is not: many emails go out that are virtually identical to the traditional memo. Both types of correspondence have To and From fields, a date, and a subject line. The only noteworthy difference is that the email versions aren’t printed out for distribution.
A third type of email acts as a substitute for what would historically have been an oral communication, whether over the phone or in person. These emails tend to be more informal, but they should still be professional.
The problem is, they often aren’t.
Consider this scenario. In the mid-ı990s, if a manager had wanted a document from an employee, he or she might have phoned. The conversation would perhaps have sounded something like this:
Manager: Hi, John. How are you?
Employee: Fine, Janet. How are you?
Manager: Great. I was wondering whether you had a copy of the latest user guide.
Employee: Absolutely. Would you like me to bring it over?
Manager: Yeah, that would be great. Thank you.
Employee: Sure. See you in a minute.
The words themselves would certainly have conveyed information, but our hypothetical employee, John, would have gleaned additional information from the manager’s tone of voice. He would have been able to make reasonable guesses about whether she was in a good mood, pleased with his work, in a hurry, and so on.
Such an exchange might alternatively have taken place in person, in which case John would also have received visual cues through Janet’s facial expressions and body language.
Today such an interaction is increasingly likely to take place through email. When a person sends an email, however, vocal and physical cues are absent. Without accompanying nonverbal signals, messages can easily come across as rude, or curt, or confusing — despite the good intentions of the sender. Therefore, the details of an email matter. It is by paying attention to those details that the writer helps ensure that an outgoing email accomplishes its mission.