Monday, May 18, 2009

What up, dogg? Losing the attitude in speech and writing, Part 1

One of the greatest struggles of the 21st-century workplace is that of good communication.  Many interns have grown up with email and PowerPoint and have spent some of their formative college years using instant messaging and text messaging.  Familiarity with these forms of high-tech communication would make one think that interns would be especially good at workplace communication--they're all good at exchanging information briefly, clearly, and quickly.  Or are they?  My experience has shown me that there's a little something to be desired in workplace communication, but with a little practice the gap can be crossed.

The thing that interns need to keep in mind is that your bosses almost invariably are old enough to be your parents, or at least a youngish aunt or uncle.  These people came up through school learning a lot more about essay writing, whereas many of you may have learned more about passing tests so that your high schools could maintain funding.  (I'm not saying you didn't learn something in English class about how to write clearly, but the input I'm getting from all the college professors I know is that the emphasis on good writing in high school isn't what it used to be.)  Also, these people didn't grow up with email--they're more accustomed to using a phone to ask someone a question or a fax to exchange information--they're not used to scanning and emailing documents.  Why is this difference important?  Not because it means that your boss is a fuddy-duddy (though they may be, I don't know your boss personally), but it means that the previous standard mode of communication has something that email does not: nuance.  When you hear someone speak aloud, you can tell if they're reticent or enthusiastic, sincere or sarcastic.  Not so with email.  You can email the words "you look nice today" to someone, and depending on the person's mood, they could read it as if it's a compliment or as a subtle jab at the new slacks they bought last weekend.  Keep this in mind in when sending an email.  Whatever you write could be read more than one way, especially depending on the words you choose.  

Let's say you need a CAD background for your project so that you can do some coordination a week before the CDs are due.  The backgrounds were due on Monday, and everyone sent them to you except for the electrical engineer.  It's now Tuesday, and you need his backgrounds, end of story.  You're annoyed, almost angry, because this guy keeps doing this to you.  So what do you do?  You could handle it by phone, but let's say you decide to use email to school this slacker.  Fair enough--you can copy your boss on the email to let her know that the engineer is underperforming and leaving you hanging.  But you still can't be a jerk.

At first, you think you should just lay it out:
I asked for everyone's backgrounds on Monday you didn't send me yours. Where are they?  Everyone has sent theirs to me but you.  I need them now.  This is the second time you've done this.  Is there a problem?

Okay.  That might work, but it could be construed as obnoxious and wagging a finger in Mark's face "Everyone has sent me theirs but you," like you're saying "all the other kids are good, why can't you be good?"  Please note that I'm not saying how you feel is invalid; you have every right to be annoyed with Slacker Mark.  But if you convey any attitude, Mark gets to ignore you.  No, I didn't respond to Lulu's email--she's a jerk!

So let's try again:

I still need your backgrounds so I can do final coordination for next week's deadline.  Please let me know if you cannot get them to me by noon today.

Better.  The request is in the service of the job--" I can do final coordination."  Also helpful is a finite deadline, which is now noon today. Furthermore, this email puts the onus on Mark if he can't get them to you in a timely fashion.  He has to let you know if he's going to be later than noon.  Now let's say Mark emails you back to say that Paul, his draftsman, emailed you the background yesterday afternoon.  Your email back:

Now you're just messing with me.  What email did he use?  Try it again, dude.  I'll call you at 11 if I haven't seen them yet.

Hm.  It's brief and to the point, but again it could read as a sudden attack of snarkolepsy.  "Now you're just messing with me" could be delivered with a laugh over the phone, but in email it can be read as a dig.  The same goes for "dude;" with the wrong tone of voice (spoken or interpreted), it can be snide.  Let's try it again:

What email did Paul use?  Please have him check the spelling (or forward him this email) and have him give it another shot.  I'll check my spam filter to see if it caught his email, and I'll call you at 11 if I haven't seen it again.  Thanks!

Again, better; problem solving is combined with civility and less room for interpretation.  Whenever you write an email, pause and reread it slowly and carefully for any possible landmines.

In the next post, we'll talk some more about "dude" and why you should always write as if your email is going to be forwarded to the New York Times.

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