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A Quick Guide to Email: Not Being “That Guy”

A Quick Guide to Email: Not Being “That Guy”

A Quick Guide to Email: Not Being

    If you’re reading this, odds are you are a knowledge worker whose time is very valuable and who requires large chunks of uninterrupted time in order to do whatever it is you are being paid to do.  You aren’t cranking widgets.  Instead, you’re trying to discover the history and social significance of widgets across cultural contexts, or you’re trying to design a revolutionary new machine to produce widgets, or you’re looking for ways to improve the widget supply chain, or you’re working for an upstart start-up beta-testing widget 2.0.  Your time is valuable and interruptions can be extremely costly.  Not surprisingly, email is probably your #1 daily time-waster.  This article will take a slightly different tack.  Instead of offering suggestions for dealing with incoming email, I’m going to offer a few tips for not being “That Guy” who is constantly wasting everyone else’s time with email.

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    Email has changed the way that people communicate.  It has made it much, much easier to send and receive important information.  It has also made it much, much easier to send and receive time-wasting nonsense.  The cruel irony is that since important information requires so much more careful thinking, the proportion of workplace communication consisting of time-wasting nonsense has probably risen.  The amount of careful thinking required for important information and time-wasting nonsense might remain unchanged, but since the cost of transmission is now essentially zero, the relative cost of time-wasting nonsense has fallen.  Therefore, time-wasting nonsense consumes a larger share of workplace (indeed, total) communication.  So here are a few ways you can be an agent of change.

    Don’t Forward That Message.

    Did someone just send you an email suggesting that Bill Gates is driving around with his lights off so that he track down people who flash their lights at him, knock them out with “perfume samples,” rob them, and donate the proceeds to a charity that will help find a missing teenage girl from Philadelphia so she can testify before Congress to see that “In God We Trust” remains on US currency because if it doesn’t, “Touched By an Angel” will be forever banned from TV?  A couple of things are true about this email:

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    1. It’s probably a lie, and this can easily be verified at www.snopes.com.
    2. Even if it isn’t, it’s probably outside the ability of anyone you’re sending the forward to to do anything about.  The relevance and importance of an email is an increasing function of the degree to which it contains actionable information. It is possible that I may someday wake up in a bathtub full of ice with both kidneys removed if I don’t take certain precautionary steps.  This is extremely unlikely, and the potential email forwarder should not mistake what is possible from what is probable.  Just because something could happen doesn’t mean it will.

    Don’t Send Mass Requests to Distribution Lists Indiscriminately.

    Seriously.  Don’t.  Internal distribution lists were created to help people communicate mission-critical information to everyone on the list.  Do you have a friend who is looking for an apartment?  Need to find a home for a stray cat?  Use Craigslist, not the everyone@yourcompany.com distribution list.  These messages do convey information that some people find useful but that a lot of other people don’t.

    Get the Email Monkey Off Your Back.

    This is standard advice among people who want to control their information inflow.  It’s also great advice for people who want to control their information output, too.  Specifically, it’s a great way to increase the signal-to-noise ratio of your information output.  Staying constantly engaged with email increases the number of opportunities you have to produce garbled, noisy communication, while being judicious about your email is a good way to prevent yourself from abusing a friend or colleague’s precious mental energy. The popular “email monkey” metaphor is appropriate for another reason.  Monkeys are notorious for throwing fecal matter.  Common courtesy demands that you not throw a digital version of the same thing.

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    Establishing expectations is also important.  I’ve run into a couple of snafus because people expect me to be connected at all times.  It’s true that this created some trouble, but communicating to people that I’m not always and everywhere available was worth it.  Further, for the prospective time-wasting emailer, it is important to remember that when you waste someone else’s time you invite them to waste yours. If you get a lot of stupid emails, this might be in part due to the fact that people know they can contact you at any time and get an immediate response.

    Ask Whether Your Email Is Important.

    Are you asking someone for information that could be looked up easily?  Even if it isn’t, are you sure that what you’re asking for is the best use of the recipient’s time?  If you’re asking a subordinate to prepare a brief on how the sock industry performed last year, are you being clear in what you’re asking for?  Do they trust that their time isn’t being wasted?  If the answer to any of these is “no,” then re-read and re-think the email you’re about to send.

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    Build Good Email Habits By Starting Small.

    We all produce a great deal of “Ill Communication”.  It’s a byproduct of the digital age.  When you have a few free minutes, look in your “sent items” folder for the number of emails you sent yesterday.  At least one of those was probably unnecessary, so you can probably save your company and yourself time and energy by trying to reduce that number by one.  During your weekly review (you are doing a weekly review, aren’t you?), try to calculate the number of emails you send in an average day and try to reduce that average.  The next week, try to reduce that average by one.  I would guess that most people could cut their email output by ten percent or so and maintain or even increase their productivity, all other things remaining equal.

    The problem with email is that it allows the email sender to treat everyone’s attention as if it were common property. This produces a predictable “tragedy of the commons” whereby everyone’s attention is being over-exploited.  The norms of courtesy for email communication are still being developed, and it is important for people to learn how to respect others’ time and attention.  For the email-ee, it is important to show people how to do this by being diligent about ensuring that they do not encroach on your private property: your time and your attention.

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    Art Carden

    Art Carden is an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.

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    Last Updated on January 15, 2021

    7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

    7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

    The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

    Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

    Posture

    First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

    • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
    • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
    • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
    • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

    All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

    Facial Expressions

    Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

    • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
    • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
    • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

    If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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    1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

    A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

    The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

    This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

    2. Relax Your Face

    New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

    The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

    To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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    3. Improve Your Eye Contact

    Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

    The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

    To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

    3. Smile More

    There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

    Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

    4. Hand Gestures

    Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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    It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

    5. Enhance Your Handshake

    In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

    “Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

    It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

    6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

    As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

    Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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    Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

    Final Takeaways

    Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

    If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

    More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

    Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

    Reference

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