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Has email made us forget how to have real conversations?

Ginny McReynolds is dean of humanities and social science at Cosumnes River College

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but when email was invented, I was tremendously relieved. No more having to make awkward, difficult phone calls—or really any phone calls at all. No more having to sit down and write long, descriptive letters detailing the events of my thrilling life to people who live elsewhere. No more having to listen to the details of someone else’s life just so I can overcome my guilty feelings for not keeping in better touch with them.

It is these reasons and more that came to mind at a meeting recently, when a man I respect enormously said that we should only use email to confirm a meeting or to ask or answer a quick question. I couldn’t believe it.

For a shy person like me, email has been heaven. Need to explain to someone that I might have messed up a bunch of paperwork? Just send an email—completely eliminating the possibility of hearing the anger or disappointment in their voice. Want to tell someone you can’t make the dinner you promised you’d attend tonight? Same answer. Not having to deal with the receiver’s sullen poutiness gives me even more of an opportunity to say how sorry I am—and repeat it several times.

Truthfully, this advice was so jarring to my preferred method of communication that I just tried to forget it for a while. Surely I’ll be able to think my way around this, I thought, knowing soundly that I could come up with some clever justification for avoiding face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) contact with most folks. Naturally, though, given the way hubris tends to work, I learned just the opposite lesson the next day.

I needed to communicate something a bit difficult to a shy employee. I knew a tête-à-tête was going to be tough for her and me, so I looked up her email address and sent her a quick note asking her if she might consider reversing a decision she’d made earlier in the day regarding a student. I hit “send” and felt happy that it was over. When she appeared in my office doorway a couple of hours later, I said, “So that worked out OK?”

Anyone who can read between the lines can see where this is going. First of all, she didn’t read “consider,” in my note; she read “do it.” Second, my one-sided email didn’t give her a chance to explain why she made the decision in the first place. And third, she felt the change would alter her whole policy regarding this kind of situation—all without us ever speaking. Talk about a runaway train.

I apologized profusely, we came up with a good compromise (in person), and I heard the real power of my colleague’s advice about email. I haven’t eliminated it completely from my communication repertoire, but I’m relearning how meaningful it can be to have a real conversation.