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By Pierre Wauters
Sitting in front of my PC, I open my mailbox. Among the junk mail, there is an email
from a person I know; I open it and ... holly cow, what is this? My throat gets
tight, my blood pressure rises, my pulse races.. I re-read it a couple of times
just to make sure but each reading makes me feel worse. Then I hit the Reply button
and start typing... (It is at that very moment that my daughter comes to me wanting
to play and I push her away saying that I am busy doing work)
Feels familiar ? Most of us use email daily. We get a lot, we send a lot. We believe
that it is an important activity in our lives. This is work, it has priority, the
kids can wait.
Well, not so long ago, there was no email and there were no cellphones, there was
no texting and no Internet. Were people not communicating better though? In our
century, with all that technology at our fingertips, we should be the best communicators
in the universe.
The locals in Vilcabamba don't use email. For a start, most don't have a computer,
let alone an internet connection. What they do have is a stronger sense of family
and community. They spend time together and talk. Have you noticed that when there
is an event in Vilcabamba where hundreds of locals gather at a set time on the square,
there never seem to be any announcement anywhere. Often I wonder, how did they know
that at 9 PM tonight, there was going to be such and such performance on the square?
There is apparently a strong network in place.
I am doing property development here and this is an activity that requires good
communication. Yesterday, on top of our usual activities, we had a second team on
site working on the building of a new bridge across the river, that is: an engineer,
an excavator, a maestro, 6 workers. At the same time I was working with the neighbours
on a water supply from their property to mine. It all went surprising well. People
work efficiently together, they look happy, and we just communicate directly, face
to face. Of course, this requires the boss (me) to be there, on site, at some ungodly
hour in the morning and go back and forth on my motorcycle to catch up with the
scattered teams. Then, on the same day, I needed to resolve some issue with neighbours
who were engaging is some development that could potentially be detrimental to my
property. Again, we set a time, met in a room and talked it through. This time I
had a translator to help. What needed to be said was said and everybody included
myself left the room happy with nothing further to mulch about. Problem solved,
let's move on to the next one. Some days, I am exhausted but this is a small price
to pay to get results.
The point is that serious misunderstandings are rare (only small ones, easy to address)
and when things do go wrong as they always do, we correct them immediately with
a little face to face chat and "una caja de cervezas".
Compare this with our modern technologically advanced world of communications! That
is the world that I was living in in New Zealand when I was doing software architecture
and development. My last job in "cubicle land" was a disaster in terms of rapports
between people. I did not realise how bad it was at the time as this all looked
"normal" to me but now I can see it. The "cubicle dwellers" often used emails to
discuss things with their immediate neighbours, instead of getting up, walking 5
meters (at most) and just talking to them. What a pathetic site it was to watch
co-workers get angry and shoot emails at each others, cc-ing the boss on each email...
We did not know that the boss had set up a policy on the email server to discard
every email that had his address in the cc box, so he would only receive emails
addressed directly to him. But I diverge.
Here in Vilcabamba, most people have a good heart and the best intentions but in
several instances, I found it harder to deal with the people who come from
the so-called "first world" and speak the same language as me than with the locals
despite the language barrier. Between us first-worlders, we tend to use email, as
a matter of habit I suppose, and with emails, things seem to turn to custard sooner
or later, I mean 'disaster', lost or aborted friendships, harsh words, misunderstandings
that nobody bothers to correct ... I think that we just cannot communicate well,
as if we had lost that basic skill.
Or maybe we never had that skill. It is a fact that at school, leaning how to communicate
is not a high priority item on the curriculum, if it is there at all. In particular,
how to write a decent email is not something that is taught. We learn how to format
and formulate a letter but that is about it and who uses letters nowadays? When
it comes to emails, it seems that there are no rules and anything goes. Just spit
out whatever you feel like saying and click send. I often cringe when I get an email
Some people find that format acceptable and will tell you that it is for
the sake of efficiency that they don't:
We could rewrite this email with minimal effort:
How are you? You must be busy and maybe you forgot to call Judie yesterday? Remember
that we need to get that agreement signed tomorrow. It is important. Please let
me know if I can help.
Much better !
Emails are a particularly risky form of communication because they totally lack
a way to convey "body language". In the first version of the email above, how do
I know whether the sender is really upset and scolding me or just reminding me?
There is no body language to help. The sentence "Obviously you didn't" is negative,
prone to upset and probably unnecessary. It is to address this to a degree that
"emoticons" have been invented. Emoticons allow somebody to write for example: "You
are a real pain :-)" The little smiley face :-) at the end of the sentence indicates
that you are saying this a certain way and don't really mean it literally. However,
one can only go that far using this technique.
To the first email, a possible answer could be:
Whereas to the second format, a possible answer could be:
You see how things easily go sour with emails ?
"Words are only words" I said to someone recently, in the middle of a heated argument,
seeing that we were having one of these exchanges where words cross each others
and that we were getting nowhere. What I meant was that when we use a word in a
sentence, we attach meaning to that word, but what the other person receives on
the other side of the communication channel, albeit being the same word, is possibly
associated with a different meaning. That is what I meant by saying "words are only
words". Now, it happened that even the word "word" can be associated with different
meanings and what I got back from the other person was a sharp reply telling me
that the "given word" is as important as the written word, implying that by saying
"words are only words" I was actually meaning that if I say something and it is
not in writing, in a contract for example, it is not worth much. In other words,
I was admitting that I was not a man "of his word". Wow, I thought, that is really
interesting that we cannot even agree on the meaning of the word "word".
Emails of course are made out of words and nothing else, no facial expression, no
tone of voice, no movement of the hands etc... and like I said, we need to realise
in an email more than anywhere else that "words are only words".
Using emails is fine, particularly to:
Using emails is, in my opinion, counter-indicated to:
The key point is "negative" versus "positive" energy. An email
could be qualified in terms of the energy that it contains, the more positive energy
the better. I believe that if we managed to strip off all emails of their negative
energy content, we'd achieve much better communication. Negative energy in an email
takes many different forms (lies, innuendos, sarcasm ...). We intuitively know when
we receive an email that is turbo charged with negative energy. What is less obvious
is when we are sending one ourselves.
Let's give our emails a detox, let's cleanse them, strip them of
all negative energy. One way to detoxify an email is to wait before sending it,
hold it as a draft, and re-read it the next day, looking for any sign of negativity
in it. When we manage to do that, result are truly amazing and we find more often
than not that that the email just does not get sent at all !
A better way to cleanse an email is to delete it before sending it. When things
get a bit tense or have the potential to go bad, let's make the effort to talk directly
but not necessarily immediately. You see, another skill that we have lost is called
"patience". Again, watching the locals in Vilcabamba is a great lesson. It takes
them hours to go up that mountain with the donkey to bring the lunch (el almuerzo)
to some worker on the farm or to go and milkthat cow that just dropped a calf. We
are used to immediacy and when we send an email, we kind of expect an answer within
a short period of time. When we receive an email, we want to reply immediately too.
But I ask: Isn't it better to have a good positive meeting tomorrow or next week
than to generate a bunch of emails right now that achieve nothing ?
I suspect that another reason why email communication is so widespread is that it
is much easier to hold one's position than when in a face to face situation. Face
to face usually means compromise and that of course hurts. It is more comfortable
to be righteous and flawless in emails than having to admit less than perfection
in a verbal exchange.
To wrap this up, I recently received an email from a person I respect and to which
I honestly did not know how to answer positively. Instead of digging myself into
a hole, I sent the generic reply shown below:
The communication “programming” that most first world people live by dictates that
we reply to emails, texts, voice mails, pick up the phone when it rings etc and,
if we don’t, we are considered impolite or the sender thinks that we are avoiding
him or some other form of negative thought.
So, in line with this programming, I am replying to your email to let you know that
I have received it, read it and that I have nothing to say. I have run through many
scenarios of the possible chain of communication that could come from your email
and, so far, a positive flow of communication has not become apparent. Until one
does and a positive energy, good result for all, that enhances our friendship becomes
apparent, I’d rather not pursue a conversation (especially via email) that is highly
probable to projecting negative energy and outcome.
If you find yourself having negative thoughts because I have not specifically addressed
what you said, then I ask that you take a moment to consider your own thoughts and
find a more positive line of thinking.
I look forward to the opportunity presenting itself where we meet (spontaneity),
have an impromptu drink and discuss with light hearts your email as part of a wider
With good friendship and love,