Why I Hate Email

A couple of colleagues and friends have been singing the praises of email lately.  I hate it. Largely because of the things that made it so popular with me originally – that it was free, immediate, that you could send as many as you liked and they could be as long as you liked.

This might not be a problem if people didn’t somehow feel they could say things in emails that they would never say in to you in person (ie venting), or say things they would say to you in person (ie informal and inappropriate, given that it’s not a passing comment but a permanent record in writing).

Here are 7 reasons why I hate email

  1. Rudeness.  People write emails when they are angry (and sometimes when they are drunk).  They are sent before the author has time to calm down or reflect on what they’re sending; there’s no limit on length or strength.  They’re not pleasant to read.  Also people rarely bother to work on their email etiquette; those who SHOUT IN ALL CAPS take a lot of persuading to change their ways. These kinds of messages are better suited to face to face or telephone conversations.  Or if they must take place online, instant messaging (or Twitter style short messages) ensure that they are short, to the point, and part of a two-way dialogue.
  2. Being copied in.  It’s really easy for people to add loads of recipients; much easier, in fact, than finding out to whom they should correctly address their message.  Too much email => too little attention to any of it, even the important stuff.  And the email gets ignored by everyone anyway, because each thinks someone else will deal with it.  If you want to send someone a message and let others see it, post it to their profile on a suitable (perhaps enterprise) social network.
  3. The illusion of privacy: forwarding. A teacher sends a note about a student to a personal tutor, foolishly and thoughtlessly saying what they think about the student.  The personal tutor forwards it to the parent, foolishly and thoughtlessly.  The parent is, naturally, furious to see their offspring so described (and there’s no context or tone of voice in print, nor any chance to claim misinterpretation).  People seem to consider emails to be private communications, unlike say a tweet or blog post, and rarely stop to consider the fact that once they’ve pressed send they’ve not control over who with and how far it gets shared.  If you’re going to be frank, instant message, telephone or ideally face to face communication will reduce the chances of your words being shared verbatim.
  4. Not being copied in. Yes, I know this contradicts point 3 but it’s still a failing of email: there may be an important message you miss because both the sender and the recipient do not realise it’s on a subject that may be of great relevance to you.  Had they posted it within a discussion board and tagged it, you could have joined the conversation.
  5. The illusion of privacy: replying. You could blame the idiot who got this wrong (i.e. me) rather than the email, but I’ve been caught out in the past when I’ve forwarded an email with a rather blunt assessment of what I think of the senders’ message to a colleague, only to discover I didn’t forward it because I hit reply.  Too easy to do.  Again, frankness is for face to face.
  6. The politics of copying in.  Once you copy in X and Y you think “I’d better copy in Z” or they’ll feel bypassed.  And you forget all about copying in W…  Then Z, who you did copy in, has also had to read a dozen messages and skimming yours didn’t notice that you said it was only a proposal, and acts on it straight away…  Again, better to post to where anyone who might need to read it can, and make sure that those who need to see it have done.
  7. Organisation.  I don’t want to spend my life doing electronic filing.  Apple Mail has a great search facility which saves me most of the time I need to find a particular message, but when attachments are flying back and forth I never know which is the latest version.  Google Docs or a wiki provide place locate the document and provide versioning and discussion around it.

I will accept there are occasions when email is the most appropriate medium for a task, but the instances where this is the case are far outweighed by the occasions when email is used poorly and inappropriately when there are better tools for the job.  You could try to educate people to use email properly, but has this ever worked?  No.  Therefore I propose email be banned.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

2 thoughts on “Why I Hate Email

  1. agreed. i’d love to see something a bit more twitter-like (and a wiki) at my place of work but that will never happen.
    will have to continue to put up with colleagues SHOUTING AT ME IN CAPITALS and ending every sentence with two (two!!) exclamation marks!!

  2. I think it may be difficult, in some way, to let go of the feeling of control that you get when you decide who is going to read your email. This is illusory, of course, anyway – since sending it to someone in no way means they’ll read it. But the benefit of more open discussion – both in terms of the consideration people then give to framing their communications, and in allowing people to make connections and so utilise untapped resources in terms of institutional knowledge – are too easily overlooked.

    We’ve got wikis and social networking tools coming out of our ears where I work, but lots of (tech-savvy, Facebook using) folks seem to be absolutely wedded to the ways of email.

    The key is getting people to understand the benefits of the alternatives. Email is old and established; but I remember explaining to my grandfather why he shouldn’t get a replacement fax machine because everyone he’d want to fax now had these “email addresses” (and email was brilliant etc.)

    So don’t say never…

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