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We have two primary dimensions when we look at “rich versus lean.” Email sits toward the “lean” side of our model. Let’s look at the differences between these dimensions and what constitutes each.

The first variable to consider is whether the message is personal versus impersonal. Some things need to be said in person because it is difficult to determine tone from an email. Have you ever tried to be sarcastic in email, for example, and it didn’t work because it was misread? If you type something like “That’s just fine,” “Bless your heart,” or “Yeah, sure,” it could be interpreted differently if you were to say it. How about a person who says, “That’s just fine,” while rolling her eyes? If there was a tone in her voice, you may realize that it’s not “just fine.” Sometimes a personal presence is necessary in order to convey emotion. It’s often difficult to convey that over email.

The second variable to consider is whether the message is static versus interactive. Static is one-way communication. Do you ever feel like you are being talked “at”? In other words, you and the person are not having a dialog. In contrast, interactive communication is two-way. It needs to go back and forth in a way that benefits both participants. Static communication could be acceptable if you are simply providing information. It’s difficult, for example, to brainstorm via email. Interactive dialogs are difficult to track and move quickly. Has anyone ever written an email to 15 people in your department and people start hitting “Reply to All,” and suddenly the whole group is trying to brainstorm in email with 47 messages? It is just not effective.

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