Over the weekend I read a fascinating account of what life is like for international development workers in Iraq (in an email from a colleague). I learned about the dreary living conditions, severe restrictions due to security, and the need to carry around personal protection gear. But, I was most fascinated by the account of how unfriendly the overall atmosphere is at some of the compounds within the Green Zone. One of the little tidbits was that workers in at least one agency of the United Nations are instructed to not chit chat at the office—which means they send emails to each other for even the smallest matters. The rationale for the policy is if people are talking they will disturb others in the office since the office is basically one large room with lots of desks.
This got me thinking about the downsides of email as a primary form of communication. In several of my classes I caution students to avoid email if they can instead make a phone call or have a short face-to-face conversation—especially in cross cultural environments where not everyone is a native English speaker (assuming English is the language of communication). In my experience emails can create serious misunderstandings—particularly in international work environments. After reading my colleague’s email I was not surprised to learn about the low levels of trust and lack of working camaraderie. It seems like requiring email to be your main form of communication invites misunderstanding and conflict in the workplace. And I found it ironic that the United Nations, a peacekeeping organization, seems to encourage such potentially conflict-inciting policies.