For those of us whose work primarily is office-based and desk-bound, many social interactions are facilitated through the medium of email.
Email can be the cause of enormous stress and anxiety. It brings with it a whole new regime of social rules and regulations, and another opportunity for humans to showcase their (often irrational) biases, preferences and habits. The rules of email communication can vary from person to person, team to team and organisation to organisation. Just because you learned one set of rules at your last workplace, doesn’t guarantee you navigating the next system perfectly. For a medium that is meant to help facilitate effective communication, the outcome can often be the very opposite of that. So why can it be so hard?
Well, for one – humans rely enormously on communication methods beyond words. Body language. Tone. Touch. Facial expressions. These are incredibly important to the messages being conveyed from one person to another. With email, you don’t have these other signals to rely upon. You’re having to interpret the words, their cadence and a bit of their tone, as best you can.
In a stand up gig once, comedian Arj Barker talked about the need to have different fonts to help illustrate tone in email and SMS: e.g. “Good Times (New) Roman” for the happier, friendlier, joking messages; and “Sarcastica” for those times you don’t quite mean what you say. It was an apt observation – because the same sentence can be delivered in so many ways, with resulting interpretations varying.
Similarly, my work colleagues recently got into some debate about the right words to use in signing off an email, and were a bit surprised at how much we differed on what we thought appropriate. No sign off, and just the name? Some found that totally fine. Some found that abrupt and rude. The use of ‘Cheers’ opened quite the can of worms… with some saying it too casual and others saying it felt like the right friendly tone for their working relationships. Others felt ‘Regards’ too stiff and formal. There’s many articles covering the different sign-offs you can use – from the bizarre to the beige. It is highly likely we created new sources of anxiety for at least one of my colleagues, whose since been changing their sign-off regularly. All agreed however that using ‘Go shake a tailfeather’ was just asking for trouble.
And the words you use are only one aspect of the social minefield that is email. The one that recently got me thinking was the rules around using the CC field. (Who am I kidding? It actually got me riled up because of its overuse in some recent communication, and so I decided to actually look into what’s driving the use of this field, in an attempt to try and increase my empathy, thereby reducing my rage-flames.) Pleasingly, there’s been some studies on this one and the effects it can have on your co-workers. Perhaps it is my confirmation bias running rampant here and honing in on these particular pieces of work, but recent research by David De Cremer is showing that using the ‘CC’ field in email can have a negative effect on your colleagues.
There’s some common reasons that people use the CC, and not all are bad. There are legitimate times when your manager or colleague has asked to be included in communications, and everyone understands this expectation. It is when those expectations across colleagues and teams are unclear to begin with that things can go awry. Suddenly CC’ing a manager or supervisor can seem like your colleague doesn’t trust you and perhaps wants to make sure they’re positioned as being in the clear – or covering their arse somewhat, and landing you in it.
People often overuse the CC field out of fear. Fear from past communication breakdowns. Fear of being seen as unproductive. Fear of being blamed for something. Fear that may not actually involve you at all, but speak volumes about themselves and how confident they are feeling. However, in some cases they are using it deliberately to try and control a situation, knowing full well the potential negative impacts it might have on those receiving the email. The research undetaken by De Cremer showed that in many instances, people were CC’ing in managers and supervisors deliberately and strategically, knowing full well the negative effect it would have on coworkers. The ‘innocent/well-meaning mistake’ ones were far rarer. Awks.
Sometimes the overuse of the CC field is more about the opportunity to show off, to ensure that many people know exactly how hard they’re working and the results they’re achieving. This one is colloquially known as ‘ego mail‘.
Similar to this, people CC others in because they just genuinely crave positive reinforcement and some reassurance that they’re on track. Humans are social beings. We like to measure ourselves against each other and receive feedback on how we’re doing – particularly from the people that matter. If you think this is the reason why you’re being CC’d in, then it is probably an easier one to tackle. You can provide feedback in other forums and other ways – and if you’re their manager and this is happening, this is excellent feedback for you that perhaps this is something they need more often, and that they’re asking for reassurance. If you think it is more about showing off, and it is clogging up the inbox, it may need a different approach.
There’s some occasions when CC’ing makes total sense and should occur. According to this psychologist, these three tips are worth thinking about when you consider CC’ing:
- Someone asked you to CC them in (keep in mind that not everyone on your recipient list may have known this though)
- Your message is genuinely relevant for all recipients
- All email recipients need to take actions
The best practical hint I’ve seen so far is to include every person’s name in the email you write – i.e. actually type “Dear Kate, Jo, Ahmed and Lin” into the body of the email. If it feels weird to include someone’s name, you can probably safely say that they don’t need to receive this email. It perhaps isn’t relevant to them.
And if you’re cc’ing a manager or supervisor in, do it with care. It will have an impact on your colleagues, and how much they think you trust them. Ask yourself why you’re doing that, and whether there’s another way to go about it.
Go shake a tailfeather!
(See what I did there?)