Email Pollution

Maybe When The Pandemic Is Over, We Will All Have A Clearer Understanding Of Digital Noise.

Communication specialists have identified several problems with work-related email. Senders don’t fill in succinct and specific subject lines. Receivers select “reply all” when they need only reply to one person. Senders CC receivers who do not have to be in the loop. Lazy senders use group email lists when they could type in the addresses of the few they need to reach.

While these specific issues are significant, they distract us from the overall problem: we overload one another with too much email.

The ease of sending emails is offset by the burden of reading them. If someone spends 60 seconds typing an email and sends it to 100 coworkers who each spend 60 seconds reading it, that email costs the company one hour and 40 minutes of work time. A 60 second email sent to 1,000 coworkers uses up over 16 hours, or the equivalent of one work day with overtime.

Nothing is inherently wrong with sending email, but email is a resource and should be managed like one.

Communication Audit

A communication audit I did for a national banking system revealed that employees were spending two to six hours reading emails they didn’t need in order to get to the ones that impacted their jobs.

One woman working at a bank on the West Coast reported she received an email telling her birthday cake was being served in a conference room in Detroit. This may be a worst-case scenario, but it is a perfect illustration of the real problem: we are overcommunicating through email.

Essentially, as human beings we send and receive messages. Telephones, texts, mass media, emails, and talking and listening are just different ways of doing the same thing. Regardless of the medium, we basically sow and harvest information.

Why then shouldn’t the same social rules apply to all media? We act respectfully and responsibly with most other forms of communication, but we are particularly careless with email.

If email were not an option, would the person who invited coworkers to share her birthday cake in Detroit have phoned, texted, broadcast or driven cross-country to tell her 50,000 coworkers about the confection? No, she had access to a group email list and used it instead of taking the time to type in the addresses of the few people who might be interested. She obviously felt it was okay to be lazy because she was just using email.

Talking Too Much

Someone who sends unnecessary emails is no different than someone who talks too much. When a lot of people are talking excessively, all you can hear is a din, and that is what email has become, a din of meaningless messages that impede our ability to access the significant ones.

Unwanted email is digital pollution. It is no different than air and water pollution.

The cause of the email problem is similar to the cause of physical pollution problems. Automobiles were introduced without regard to air pollution because there were too few gasoline engines in the world to have a noticeable impact. The situation worsened gradually.

Email overload has the same trajectory as fossil fuels; it snuck up on us. In 1988 a friend of mine who worked for AT&T Bell Laboratories asked me if he could post an unpublished manuscript of mine on the internet to see what would happen. There were so few manuscripts on the web at that early date that I had people from all over the world reading my travelogue about Mount Athos and sending me emails. I was happy to receive the emails because they were a novelty not a nuisance. Imagine what would happen today if the author of a popular eBook put a personal email address on the title page.

Research always confirms that the most influential communication is face-to-face. When that isn’t an option, email, if used appropriately, is a fine substitute, and it has the advantage of creating a record of the communication.

However, it must be used with restraint. During the pandemic, with personal business interaction severely restricted, the email problem has grown exponentially. Maybe when it is over, we will all have a clearer understanding of this digital noise, and we will stop wasting one another’s time.

Here is a test everyone can perform. How many emails did you read yesterday, and how many can you remember?

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].