Why do our US-colleagues send so many emails?
First, while the high volume of emails generated by Americans may seem excessive to a German, the practice is based on the clear understanding that within American organizations the flow of information is absolutely essential. The default view for Americans is that information sharing is the path to successful outcomes.
No team can succeed without the free, open, and efficient flow of information. In American organizations, the decision-making process is organic, defined by the back and forth, the give and take of information. Sharing information is at the heart of the process.
Successful action is the result of good decision-making, which in turn is achieved only when the full-range of decision options have been proposed, understood and evaluated. This requires having the most accurate, timely, and relevant information gleaned from a broad base of participants; Americans are constantly communicating, sharing and updating information.
Not surprisingly, we see these values reflected in American email protocol and its high volume of communication. For Americans this exchange of emails is not seen as excessive because they see it as simply part of the process of working through the issue confronting the team.
Emails are not interrupting the process, but are essential to it. They are a means to ensure that “the full-range of decision options have been proposed, understood and evaluated” and that they have “the most accurate, timely, and relevant information.” Emails are an important part of the process of give and take and back and forth that is the model of American decision-making.
Second, Americans as a people have it in their cultural DNA to be information sharers. Think of the iconic American town hall; when in doubt Americans communicate. In fact, they often are over-communicators. Simply observe what they reveal to each other as strangers meeting in the supermarket, café, train station, or sitting next to each other on an airplane. Sharing information just comes naturally. Is it any surprise then that most, if not all, of the major trends, tools and platforms in today’s world of communication have their origins in the United States: Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Google, the list goes on and on.
Third, we’ve all heard the colorful figure of speech “cover your ass”, meaning: do what you can to avoid being blamed for something which goes wrong. As emails provide a record of actions taken, we can assume that the CYA reflex may contribute in some part to the volume of American emails. Americans are aware that sending an email is one way to show at a later time that action was taken. It’s a form of documentation, of proof.
Fourth, email provides a form of documentation in the more pragmatic sense of record-keeping. Instead of keeping notes, one can simply save emails which then can serve as a portable filing system that is always at hand. Email becomes a convenient way to document promises, agreements, decisions, etc., and to keep one informed about the flow and status of things.
Finally, using email may be seen as showing politeness or extending respect. Walking over to consult a colleague or calling on the phone without warning, may constitute an unwelcomed interruption. For this reason, American colleagues who work on the same floor will often still opt to send an email.
Why? Because it does not interrupt that colleague’s work. It does not demand that they stop what they were doing to respond to a question or request. Sending an email is a way to avoid putting them “on the spot” without warning. The outreach by email allows the colleague time to address the issue and to give a considered response. Its subtext might read: “Dear Colleague, I need to speak with you about something or I need something from you or I have something for you, but do not want to interrupt you. Please get back to me if and when you have time. Thank you.”