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Lost in Translation

The art and science of communication


At Character Lab, we abide by the two-email rule.

It states, simply, that if you have a question or problem that isn’t solved in two emails, you must pick up the phone: A few minutes of talking can save hours of writing and reading. Even more important, a short conversation can prevent misunderstandings that can linger in the air for much longer.

I wrote that rule, and put it into our Culture Book, when I realized how common it was for minor misunderstandings to snowball into major conflicts. In retrospect, it was clear these crises could have been avoided if the communication took place in a richer medium than email.

In fact, we also live by the talk-in-person rule: Whenever possible, we speak face-to-face.

Why all the rules?

Communication isn’t just the transmission of information. It’s also sending and receiving emotions. When I open an email, the very first thing I want to know is, “Is this good or bad? Is this person happy with me or, for whatever reason, not happy with me?”

Don’t get me wrong. The written word is a wonderful thing, and I love it. I wouldn’t be writing to you every Sunday if I didn’t.

But when words are all we’re trading back and forth, it’s easy for our intended tone to be misperceived.

For instance, an email you dash off in what you think is a neutral or positive tone may inadvertently imply to its recipient curtness or even irritation. If you said the same thing on the phone, you’d be able to use your voice to show you meant neither. Were you to utter the same words in person, you’d be able to smile, nod, look the person in the eye, and otherwise use non-verbal signals to express positive emotion.

Don’t assume that the richness of human interaction can be tapped out on a keyboard.

Do have real conversations—on the phone or in person—whenever possible. And encourage the kids in your life, gently, to see their friends, sleep over each other’s houses, and otherwise engage in the ageless art of human commerce.

With grit and gratitude,