Seeing Double: Not Everything Should be an Email

Chances are, you’ve been to a meeting that you thought was unimportant. Maybe it was too long, or maybe it veered far off-topic. And maybe you thought to yourself, “This could have been an email” — or maybe, like I have, you snidely remarked to a colleague that it should have been.

That saying — “this could have been an email” — was around before the pandemic, but now it feels even more apt. It used to just describe boring, unnecessary meetings. Now, it describes boring, unnecessary meetings that actively drain our energy. We spend hours on Zoom and on the phone every day, and it’s exhausting. So it’s reasonable to want to move unnecessary meetings to email, which we think will save us time and energy.

However, that impulse is misguided. In many cases, meetings really are better than emails. Sure, Zoom meetings and phone calls and even in-person meetings can be boring, but at least you get to talk to a human being. Rather than reading a block of imposing text, each meeting is a conversation — a back-and-forth that emails rarely approximate.

Rather, emails are formulaic and formal. For example, just take Carl’s desperate request for an extension:

“Hi Professor Maria,” he might start. 

“I have had a really rough week, and I won’t be able to finish the essay on time. Can I have an extension until Wednesday? Thank you, Carl.”

And Professor Maria will probably reply, “Sure. maria. Sent from my iPhone.” 

There’s no conversation here. There’s little chance for Professor Maria to ask Carl how he’s feeling and connect on a more human level. Of course, this is a contrived situation, and I don’t think that extension requests should be singled out for conversations rather than emails. Rather, I only want to illustrate how emails cram our complex human lives into one-dimensional, utterly unnatural threads.

And when emails are longer or more complicated, they cause problems. When you’re talking with someone, you’re able to process a huge amount of information about their body and voice to help you understand their words. Even if you misunderstand, it’s incredibly easy to ask a simple clarifying question.

On the other hand, emails are just words, devoid of any helpful context. Depending on your mood and relationship with an email’s author, it’s easy to read emotion into what they wrote — and equally easy to miss their intended affect. Of all of the communication media available to us, emails carry the least information. Even worse, there’s no safety net if you misunderstand. Any follow-up questions require another email that could take days to resolve, days that you might spend fuming or anxious.

Even worse, emails obscure the humanity of the person at the other end, much like social media. Your partner in conversation becomes merely words, not a real human being. Without the touchstone of a voice or a face, we can forget that there’s a human on the other end and overreact to what they say. Anyone who’s gotten into a Twitter fight knows the danger posed by reading words rather than seeing humans. Combined with the greater chance that we misunderstand emails, the way that they dehumanize conversants is a recipe for disaster.

But we have an antidote to email’s poisons: regular, good-ol’ conversations. A ten-minute conversation can easily cover the content of a week’s worth of emails, and you no longer have to worry about misunderstandings. Rather than spending days context-switching between various threads in your inbox and answering them asynchronously, you can chat for a couple of minutes and hash it out all at once.

And in doing so, you get to talk to (and maybe even see) another human being. You get to make awkward small talk, which actually serves to lubricate social interactions. You get to ask about their day, and they get to ask about yours. You get to interact in a deeply human way that is hard-coded into who we are. Considering the loneliness that we’re all feeling during the pandemic, that’s more necessary now than ever.

If you need proof of the benefits of meetings over emails, just look at one of campus’s newest student organizations. My co-columnist and one of the editors-in-chief of this fine publication have insisted on holding Zoom meetings every other week for their fledgling academic journal — meetings that are about as awkward as my co-columnist on a date. Even so, when I attend, I’m glad to be able to hang out with other people rather than read yet another email. I feel like I’m actually getting to know people, and I feel more connected to the group.

Of course, some communications should remain emails. This isn’t a scorched earth campaign against textual communication — you’re reading text right now! But next time you’re in an awkward, boring meeting and you think that it would be better off as an email, think about what that alternative would really look like. 

There wouldn’t be any bonding or any side conversations through the chat. There wouldn’t be any small talk. No conversation at all, really. In fact, no people either. There would just be words. Email after email of flat, boring text, weighing down your to-do list for days.

Wouldn’t it be better if those emails could just be a meeting?