Why Alexander Graham Bell Never Used E-mail

Watson Come Here!

“Mr. Watson come here!…”  That famous phrase ushered in the beginning of remote two-way communication.  (Some may argue that is the smoke signal, the drum, or the swiss alphorn but that is a different discussion. Just try to stay with me on this.)

Email followed a mere 100 or so years later,  and soon after the emoticon.  Which brings me to my point.  Alexander Graham Bell would never have used email to summon Watson to the laboratory as neither email nor the emoticon would have accurately conveyed his urgency or meaning.  If there was email at the time, Watson probably would have responded “What do you want?” or “Ask me politely and I will”.   What may have followed was a protracted discussion over the email wire concerning the reason to drop what was currently happening in order to comply, or perhaps a discussion on better planning skills, or some other goal diverting topic.

Did he really say that?

As a manager, I have been copied on hundreds of “Watson come here emails” over the last few years or have been asked to intervene on many that led to the protracted and unproductive follow-on email discussions.  Most were escalated to me when one or both parties independently complained to me about the abruptness, rudeness, or abusiveness of the other party.  Follow by comments such as “I can’t work with that individual any more” or “you need to take immediate personnel action”.  You can probably recall one or two such conversations yourself.

In most cases, I was familiar with both sending and recieving parties and was pretty sure that they did not need personnel action nor removal from the jobsite, but simply were poor indirect communicators or didn’t have the courage or interest in addressing whatever issue that existed that spurred them to craft the offensive email.  Which is exactly the point of this discussion.  Thanks for staying with me, so far.

My response to one or both parties always starts with (and depending on the location of the other party), why don’t you walk down the hall or pick up the phone and ask the other party what they need or are asking.  If the email discussion had already created a chasm too great to cross, I would summon them both to my office and review the issues together.

Not surprising, the issue rarely persisted as the problem was not one of taking care of the request and response but one of delivery of the request and interpretation and response.  But yes, there are more than a few email bullies who find incredible strength while hiding behind the keyboard but are reduced to cowards when faced with delivering the message directly, too.  But in most cases, the former is more typical.

Lost In Translation

Two-way indirect communication is frought with potential issues, just look at the telecommunications industry and the myriad protocols  and error checking developed to send electronic messages.  And those sending and recieving devices rarely have emotions.  Replace the devices with human sender and recievers using different communication protocols that cannot detect mood, emotion, and circumstance and you may be amazed there are not more fisticuffs and wrestling matches in he halls of corporate America every day.  And no, the emoticons of the smiley face, winky face, frowning face, open mouthed surprised face, or declaration of laughing out loud do not suddenly make the message suddenly clear and explicitly inoffensive.

Don’t Fuel the Fire

I also get my fair share of emails that annoy, offend, or disappoint me.  Often they are opinions or generic commentary on something that is going on in the office that has inspired the sender to comment.  Unless there is specific action requested, I rarely respond but instead make a note to pop my head in the sender’s office when I am in the area or raise the topic on the next phone call that we have.

If it does require a more immediate response or action, I ask myself, can I respond without starting an unproductive email chain?  If I can’t, I pick up the phone to get clarification or simply provide the feedback required without succombing to the temptation to fire back a response that will fuel the fire.  I have found that this method rarely sets off or sustains an unproductive cycle, and normally reveals that the sender had no ill intent at all but was simply too quick or careless with their missive.  It also provides an opportunity to provide some feedback to the sender in a way that can help correct the process.

Resist the tempatation

So next time you feel compelled to send off that faceless email or are on the recieving end of such an email, take a cue from Alexader Graham Bell.  If he were here today, I am pretty sure he would have done exactly what he did on that fateful day by picking up the phone and telling Watson the good news directly.

Send me an email with your thoughts on this topic….or better yet, give me a call or stop by my office to let me know.



About Tod Kerr

Tod is a senior corporate leader with 20 years of experience managing business operations in numerous functional areas, with a focus on developing and marketing business to business technology solutions to world-wide high tech markets that allow customers to operate their business more efficiently by driving out costs, improving productivity, and creating value for their clients.
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