Politicians, business owners, and people working in hospitality or retail understand success stems directly from ‘connecting’ with their audience. Children are taught to say please and thank you, to look people in the eye, and to smile. Most of us at DFA are effective communicators, having honed our social skills before working here. In addition to these natural skills, we have worked hard to capitalize on technology-aided communication, especially email. Without question, email increases efficiency, provides a 24/7 platform, and when properly managed, provides a searchable archive of communications and decisions. While DFA enjoys all of these benefits, we also spend a great deal of time learning how to best utilize and take advantage of email.
To help appreciate the challenges and opportunities presented by today’s technologies, it helps to understand the evolution over the last three decades. In 1991, when we embarked on our adventure, we had a conference room, beepers, and phones, but the fax machine was yet to arrive. Drawings were done by hand, and conference room tables and job sites were the meeting places of choice. Cell phones, desktop computers, tablets, smartphones, and email were the stuff of science fiction. We were given our first personal computer, a Mac Plus, in 1992 – about the time we started loading thermal paper into our first fax machine. Beepers, pay phones, and calling cards may only be vaguely familiar today, but until 1993 or 1994, this was how we stayed in touch when urgent matters arose. As each new ‘technology’ was introduced, we inched forward while wondering how we had been so productive prior to the new, new thing.
Now we have Google and iPhones (or exploding Samsung 7’s), and email has become our primary professional communication tool. Email is exceptional for communicating, and with the cloud available to store a seemingly infinite amount of material, project communications can be archived and easily accessed. Relationships are no longer enhanced solely by looking people in the eye or by the quality of a handshake. We speak or email with one particular consultant daily, and I realized recently that I am the only person in the office who has met the consultant face to face. It has become clear that while digital correspondence enables efficiency, email presents meaningful new challenges. Not only are the foundational tools of syntax, grammar, and spelling subject to re-interpretation, conveying meaning and managing tone is made difficult without face-to-face interaction. Reading and writing, it turns out, is much harder and time-consuming for people than spoken conversation.
If you wander through our office on an ordinary day, you will hear periodic requests for a ‘tone check’. Frequently, we find ourselves in an email dialogue with a client, contractor, or consultant, and a draft response has been composed. How will the email be received? Does the email seek to blame, rather than to solve? Will the email fully answer the posed question, or will it occasion further confusion? Are the appropriate parties and only the appropriate parties copied?
Once sent, an email becomes part of the record, and more ‘tempests in a teapot’ have been created by firing off something hasty, nasty, or ill-considered.
While we work hard every day to control the tone of that which leaves our office, we also work on accurately interpreting the tone of incoming email traffic. It takes a great deal of patience to forgive the implicit and often explicit tone of emails. Most correspondence is not checked for tone before its author hits send, so we endeavor to forgive an author who writes before thinking, and we aim to read emails in the best possible light. Perhaps someday, professional email will evolve into a correspondence tool that can stand on its own, yet I perceive a lessening of standards, rather than a trend toward greater care and manners. It’s too easy to be ill-considered and hasty; and now that texting, Twitter, and Instagram are dominating social correspondence, taking care with email might seem quaint or unimportant. While I don’t expect people to follow my lead in writing grammatically correct texts and relying less on emojis, our process of tone-checking emails will remain in place here at DFA.