There’s no one, perfect, way to write an email. You may have consulted various websites with email advice offering to give you the help you need to write “the” perfect email. In reality, email has to serve a number of purposes, and what you say in yours will be “perfect” if it suits the occasion.
From a behavioral perspective, a perfect email is one that produces the outcome you desire. You may have a couple of misfires within the email, or even a typo or two, but if it gets what you want, there’s no need to fret about those little keyboard gremlins. On the other hand, if those typos are significant enough to change the meaning of the message, the results could be disastrous.
Email was invented as a means to facilitate communication. No need to wait for a letter or postcard or to have to play phone tag. At any time of day or night, your message can be released into the radio waves, and the person you’re trying to reach can, similarly, give you an answer at any time as well. This fluidity of time can become your undoing, though, if you send an email when you’re sleepy, angry, or in a rush.
University of Maine’s school of business Niclas Erhardt and colleagues (2016) examined the use of email as a tool for team learning. We can gain some insights from their observational study carried out over the course of 44 weeks in a large Swedish insurance company to understand how email can foster constructive interactions. The body of 468 emails they collected over the course of the study, along with in-depth interviews provided the researchers with a fascinating window into the communicative stream as it flows among teams of co-workers.
The emails fell into 3 basic categories: Knowledge sharing (giving or receiving information), “co-construction” (building shared interpretations), and constructive conflict (identifying and resolving potential disagreements). As the authors concluded, “the affordances of email (asynchronicity, editability, persistence, and replicability) shape how … team learning occurs” (p. 259). Although this was obviously a work-based study, and therefore it’s to be expected that much of the email content was impersonal in nature, as anyone who’s worked in any sort of office or business setting knows, even these emails can carry plenty of emotional bang for their buck. What the Erhardt et al. study shows is that email can actually enhance face to face communication to bring about positive work, and interpersonal, outcomes.
In fact, that asynchronicity of email is what can be your best friend in constructing perfect emails. Your all-purpose guide to writing perfect emails starts with this premise. All of these tips are based on your willingness to reflect before you respond or initiate an email contact:
“Take the time to reflect” should be your new email mantra. Face-to-face interactions are the basis for much of our personal fulfillment, but in this increasingly email-based world, adding asynchronous interactions may help enhance yours in surprising ways.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016
Erhardt, N., Gibbs, J., Martin-Rios, C., & Sherblom, J. (2016). Exploring affordances of email for team learning over time. Small Group Research, 47(3), 243-278. doi:10.1177/1046496416635823