When Not to Email

How we communicate matters. My aim in this post is to commend to you, dear reader, the benefits of in-person conversations, over against our typical forms of communication : email and/or text. 

Now, let me say at the outset, this is not a unified theory of communication by any stretch of the imagination. I write as a pastor, in the context of Christian community — and here for those who who find themselves in contexts of conflict, or with criticisms to offer. I aim to see the church (and society at large) grow to be healthy humans who can say hard things in love, and not destroy relationships (or society) in the process. The following is but one step of many in that direction.

 Simple Ideas: The Limits of Email and Messages

First, let’s explore the inherent limits of text-based communication — particularly emails and texts. 

We communicate with words. Our words are symbols functioning as semantic vehicles by which we transfer ideas to another. But words themselves can only go so far. Intention requires another layer. We attempt to capture our attitude through punctuation (“I’m so happy for you!!”) and formatting (“I need this today.”) or by writing everything in ALL CAPS (please don’t). Despite this effort, the layer of our attitude, or intention is often lost. How, for example, do we distinguish between professional period and the passive-aggressive snarky one (“That would be great.”)? 

But this is only part of the problem. Most of our written correspondence takes place via email, text or other messaging platforms (who writes letters anymore?). Often, our emails are pounded out stream-of-consciousness, with little thought to a guiding thesis and supporting arguments. 

Furthermore, such correspondence — even texting — is rather prosaic, in that you broadcast your idea (or collection of ideas) and wait for a response. It’s like letter writing, only with quicker delivery. Even so, dialogue is restricted to a jarring send-receive-send-receive paradigm.

Finally, if we’re honest, we tend to read our messages in the middle of, well, everything. The ubiquity of mobile devices and our hyper-connected lives virtually guarantees that we interact with our messages while occupied with some other activity. While some of us may still sit down in the study by the fire with our tea and read through our messages one by one, the rest of us regularly and constantly flip through the dozens (hundreds?) of messages we receive each day — all while traveling, navigating meetings, caring for children, etc.

None of this, of course, is to disparage the benefits of email and text, for there are many. It is, rather, to highlight the limits of these communication vehicles to effectively transfer complex and dynamic ideas. Email and text messages are fantastic and efficient ways to communicating simple emotional and relational information. Simple emotional and relational information is that which is not easily misunderstood. Most of our communication is emotionally and relationally simple: what time I’m meeting you for dinner, instructions for structuring the next phase of the project, a hilarious meme to announce I’m now working out at the gym. 

 Complex Ideas: The Need for More

However, add complicating relational dynamics and things get twisty real fast. Let’s take a conflict context as an example. Conflict is, generally speaking, not simple. When engaged well, both parties disagree about some matter, but do so while also seeking to maintain a relationship with respect and love. Conflict requires emotional and relational navigational equipment that extends far beyond what punctuation can offer. 

So with criticism. If you find yourself offering healthy criticism (and not just being mean), you likely seek to frame your criticism with affirmation and compassion so it is well received. 

But email and messaging tools tend to flatten these complexities into a single, dominate message. Conflict can easily slide into a broadcast of angry words defending your point. Criticism can quickly compress into nothing more than attack. 

 The Solution: Face-to-Face Conversation

A rather elegant solution to this quandary is simply to get in the same space with that person and have a conversation. Of course, there’s much more to the story such as developing empathy, developing solid conflict-resolution skills, creating a foundation of love and trust, etc. But this is an oft-overlooked start.

When we communicate with another human being in a face-to-face context, we have the opportunity to utilize a real-time, parallel language: nonverbals. Your words are dynamic. The inflection of your voice, posture of your body, movement of your eyes all contribute to the total package of meaning. The person who leans in to say, “you’re doing a great job” softly communicates warmth and sincerity. The person who sits back, crosses her arms and says, “you’re doing a great job” with an eye-roll says something rather different. The first is all connection; the latter knives and brass knuckles.

When you sit across from another person, you can tell if your words were too harsh, or if they were confusing. You can sense if the message is being received, or if you are being overbearing. 

But it’s more than this. Face-to-face interaction allows for dynamic exchange. When you’re in a room, you can ask a clarifying question. You can offer a rebuttal. You can interrupt. Correct. Cry. Answer questions. None of this is possible in either the ping-ponging serve and return of email, or the messy cross-talk that happens through texting. These simply cannot replace the dynamism of actual in-person conversation. 

So the next time you find yourself in a context of conflict or wanting to offer constructive criticism to another, do the Big Scary Thing: set up a meeting. Get in a room with your fellow human being. And have a conversation. Yes, this requires love and courage. But my goodness, isn’t that who we should be?

 
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