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by cathyjwilson
Editor’s Pick
MAY 7, 2010 10:52AM

E-mail allows for even more uncomfortable work encounters

Rate: 3 Flag

E-mail is great for offices -- you don't have to leave your desk to ask a co-worker a question or share documents, it makes telecommuting possible, and you can tell a group of people something all at once without having to find them individually. But for all the good it does in the workplace, it can be a tool that creates an uncomfortable atmosphere when used for nonwork purposes.

I'm talking about intraoffice personal e-mails. This could range from the NSFW (not suitable for work), inappropriate e-mails to the co-worker who might send you a weird e-mail asking to hang out sometime or asking where you live (seemingly harmless but still uncomfortable). In the age of e-mail, people have a lot more guts to say things behind the computer screen than they would to your face.

This is problematic for a few reasons: First, you can tell a lot about someone's motives when you speak with that person in real life. Their mannerisms, inflection, tone, eye contact -- those things convey messages, too. E-mail has none of that -- you infer what the person's tone and motivation is, and this can lead to misunderstandings and an uncomfortable atmosphere.

Here's a personal example: it's difficult to be at a new job and trying to make friends and create positive relationships with co-workers -- some people are standoffish, some people can be clique-y, but there are always those very friendly people that are outgoing and make conversation with everyone, and these people can bring real comfort to new hires who want to make a good first impression.

But what if that super friendly person starts sending you e-mails out of the blue, asking you somewhat personal questions: where are you from, what are you up to, want to hang out sometime? It could be harmless, it could be a path to inappropriate e-mails, but you don't really know this person. You're new, and you don't know if this is typical behavior or something to flag.

The fact that the person sends e-mails makes it suspicious, because this social person would likely have no problem approaching you in person. So is the secretive nature something that should be concerning? Or is it just more convenient than other modes of communication, much like it is for office-related work? You're stuck in a rut where the e-mails aren't harassment, but they are random and uncomfortable. Ignoring them is a start, but that person is your co-worker, not a bad blind date who you can bank on never seeing again.

Another problem? Emoticons. Meant to convey emotions, these can be misunderstood and mistyped -- or again, just uncomfortable. What's the worst? The winky-face: [ ;) ]. My friend Nona said her dad accidentally sent her a text with a ;) instead of a :) -- big difference.

Texting allows for people to be more forward than they would otherwise, but in an office setting, you aren't required to give anyone your cellphone number. In the office setting, people often have access to your work e-mail account, so you are left with few options if you're simply dealing with borderline uncomfortable e-mails -- your options are telling a supervisor, confronting the person, or simply dealing with it, and none of those solutions really eases the tension. The e-mail has opened a can of worms that can't be closed.

Every workplace, office or not, has at least one overly friendly/creepy person, if not more -- e-mail just makes it more difficult to escape the awkward, uncomfortable conversations.

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I wonder if there is even an intergenerational gap with digital communication. For example, my coworkers are very adept at formal e-mail communication (none of our misspelled personal e-mails over g-mail). I specifically had to ask them what the protocol was for carbon copying people were (do we CC the entire branch even if they are not directly related? yes... yes we do).

So with winky faces, yes they are kind of weird. I think it's awkward that parents are even so proficient at texting! I feel like TFLN could have a whole section just titled “Parents Texting”.
I totally understand where you are coming from! E-Mail is so easy, quick, and helpful but it is also fraught with danger and pitfalls.

I work in State Government and I am more than a little surprised at some of the E-Mails I have received. Nothing quite as uncomfortable as your experience thank goodness but enough to make me feel a little weird.

I suppose it's all part of the larger connected society we live in now. I sort of miss the face to face interactions that used to be more prevelant in the workplace.
The worst kind of email is the NSFW one that doesn't have "NSFW" in the subject line. This is especially true if it has embedded audio and you work in a cubicle.

Emoticon is my least favorite contrived and unnecessary neologism. I am old enough to remember when they were simply called smilies, and I see no reason to change.
"Every workplace, office or not, has at least one overly friendly/creepy person, if not more -- e-mail just makes it more difficult to escape the awkward, uncomfortable conversations."
oh please.
quite the melodramatic soliloquy there. and the editors agree. you fit right in here on opensalon.
have you ever heard of DELETE
What about a SNAFU emoticon ? That might really get people wondering .
it is a brave new world