Last Word: The Electronic Brick Wall

As more technical opportunities allow workers to communicate without being “face-to-face,” people are learning less about how to communicate effectively.

By Peter Post, Director, The Emily Post Institute

It’s happened over and over again:

  • A boss sends an e-mail to fire an employee.
  • An employee goes to or a similar site and sends an anonymous e-mail to inform a colleague she has body odor.
  • A worker always sends a colleague an e-mail even though the colleague sits two cubicles away.

Don’t get me wrong, I think technology is great. Computers and cell phones make it possible to do more with less, to work from anywhere, to be available 24/7. As a result, technology allows us to be more productive and, potentially at least, more profitable.

The dark side of technology is the electronic wall that has grown brick by brick over the last 20 years. As more and more technical opportunities arise that allow workers to communicate without being “face to face,” people are learning less and less about how to communicate effectively. One of the most often requested Emily Post Institute business etiquette seminar topics is e-mail communication. The frustration managers and CEOs feel about the abuse of e-mails, and, yes, even texting and IMing, is palpable.

People write things in electronic messages they would never say in person. There is no question that people use e-mail to avoid having a difficult conversation, such as with a colleague who has body odor or to fire an employee. It feels “safer” to be quasi-anonymous, to deal with the problem, not the person, and to avoid the consequences of the message. To the recipient, the bigger message is: “He didn’t have the guts to say it to my face.” And the word gets out: Here’s a company that cares so little for its employees that it doesn’t have the courtesy to handle important, private matters in person.

Poor e-mail communications with clients, prospects, or suppliers can cost your company business. You might send an e-mail that you think is neutral in tone, but the recipient may think your words harsh, rude, or negative. Without the visual and auditory clues that are present in a face-to-face conversation, the recipient just reads the words. If you don’t think this is true, consider how many times you’ve added an emoticon to an e-mail to signal “this is a friendly message.”

Using e-mail as the main means of communicating with colleagues affects both productivity and creativity. E-mail, texts, or IMs are great for communicating factual information. “What were the sales figures for last quarter?” But when it becomes a long, convoluted, back-and-forth, “that’s not what I meant” stream, it leaves the participants frustrated and the work product on hold.

Two reasons stand out for the degradation in face-to-face communication skills.

  1. People don’t practice the basic skills of interacting in real life, so when they come face to face with a boss/client/prospect/colleague/supplier, they make mistakes that cost their companies business.
  2. People choose electronic communication over phone or face-to-face conversations. A lack of familiarity with the mannerisms, facial expressions, and vocal tone of those who make up work interactions leads to misunderstandings and weak relationships.

People hide behind the electronic brick wall to do their communicating especially when the situation is a difficult one and they really don’t want to face the person directly.

Take action to dismantle the electronic brick wall.

  • Institute a “No e-mail Friday.” On Fridays, employees won’t send colleagues an e-mail or text. Instead, they’ll get out of their chairs and visit other employees to discuss face to face what they otherwise would have sent in an e-mail.
  • Establish a policy that e-mails should be limited to who, what, when, or where. Any time a person wants to discuss the “why” or an opinion, stop writing and start talking.
  • Any time an e-mail stream starts to become an argument or disagreement, break it off and call the person or, better yet, meet with them in person to resolve the issue.

If you have business etiquette questions you’d like Peter Post to answer either in an upcoming issue of Trainingmagazine or in an online article, please e-mail them to Trainingmagazine Editor-in-Chief Lorri Freifeld at

Peter Post is a director of The Emily Post Institute (, great-grandson of Emily Post, and co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business.”

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.