Updated: Sep 22, 2022
Choosing whether to email or call can be the difference between effectively conveying your message or not. In this guide, I go through the various points to help you make the right decision each and every time.
When to email vs call: Email when the information is straightforward, you don’t anticipate a lot of questions or if you need to attach a relevant document. A call is for when the topic is going to require a lot more information exchange or needs a personal touch.
Below is a chart I put together with examples. Later in the article, I elaborate more on some common situations so you can take a deeper dive into when you should email vs call. I hope you find both helpful to improve your workplace communication decisions!
When to email vs call
How well do you know the person?
Most people now don’t pick up the phone unless they recognize the number of the caller. Even in business people are using cellphones and not desk phones so you may want to email someone you are not overly familiar with. That being said using the factors in this article you may decide to call anyways based upon other more important criteria.
Tone can be quite hard to convey in an email. People who email a lot can frequently get caught in the trap of not paying attention to tone as it takes a lot more work to convey tone.
Here is a simple conversation that could be taken two different ways.
Bob – “I broke my leg today.”
Sally – “Sorry. Do you have that project ready for me yet?”
Bob can take this email in a couple of different ways. He can believe that Sally is genuinely sorry and then is just following up or he can believe that Sally’s sorry is perfunctory and that she is more interested in the project than him. The point is that anytime there might be an issue with sensitivity you should be picking up the phone. Humans are not hard-wired to communicate via email. When communicating by phone people are much more agreeable and it’s much harder for the person to misconstrue your intent. Here is another example in which Sally works hard to convey her sincerity. This has much less chance to be misconstrued than the first example.
Bob – “I broke my leg today.”
Sally – “Bob I am so sorry to hear that! Everyone here at the office is worried about you so keep us updated on your recovery. That being said, is there anything on your plate right now that needs to be addressed while you are away? I know there is an important project deadline coming up. Is there anything remaining to be done that I can help you with?”
Even though this second example is clearly better than the first it is still much better to call in this situation so that Bob can feel the sincerity in Sally’s voice.
Apologizing should always be done by phone call. Tone is the most important part of an apology and tone is very difficult to convey in an email. Apologizing first by email can be the first step as well if you are feeling nervous about actually calling the person. Start with an email explaining that you are sorry and include in the email a request to chat by phone to further explain.
Sensitivity of person and or email subject
One of the main issues with email is that the reader very often projects their current mood and feelings upon the email which means that email you thought was nice and succinct… well, that person is having a bad day and now it appears harsh and unfriendly. If it is a sensitive person or it is a sensitive subject always call because you can properly convey tone through a call.
Status of the person you are going to contact
Is the person the vice president of the company and you are a middle manager? Be careful about who you reach out to. Cold calling a VP when you are middle management is not going to work out well for you. In this case, send an email if you have a project you want to share or an issue you need solved by senior management.
If you have a complex project and you need to share a project plan it is much better to email that plan out so that all parties involved can peruse it during their own time. Trying to explain a project plan over the phone is not going to properly convey the information. On the other hand, if you are using email as a conversation – ie you write them a question, then they write you back, and so on and so forth then you are best to use a phone call. It boils down to this. If you need a back and forth on a subject it is better to call and discuss the solution in-depth vs emailing back and forth for days. In this age of social media and non-verbal communication, we tend to fall into the habit of using said non-verbal communication even when it is inefficient. Use email when it is complex but call when you have issues that need to be solved.
Number of people involved
Email is a great tool for mass communication. When trying to convey broad company directives or when a project or task has a large number of people involved you can quickly communicate with all parties involved by email. Also, don’t be one of those people that emails everybody for a thank you or a question that only pertains to one person. Email or call that person and save everyone else the time.
Short easy subjects or requests
“Hi Cathy, do you remember what the name of that salesman at company xyz? If not do you know someone who would?”. This is an example of where email can help you maximize your efficiency. It is a simple, easy question with little chance of follow up questions or the need for clarification.
People type a lot slower than they talk. Even those of us like myself who type quite quickly can talk substantially faster than we can type. If you have sent an email and you get a response back that clearly shows the sender did not understand your intent pick up the phone. You will solve the issue quickly and build a relationship.
Between 2014 and 2018 the average office worker received about 90 emails a day and sent around 40 business emails daily.
Usually, if you want an issue solved quickly, you should pick up the phone. Because we are receiving and sending so many emails per day it is easy for an email to get lost in a person’s inbox. If you are insistent upon emailing then make sure you flag it as urgent so that it is easily noticeable. Word of warning: do not be the person that cries wolf and flags everything they send as urgent. Your urgency will lose all credibility.
It is perfectly acceptable to use email to follow up on a project and check on the progress of action items. If a deadline has been missed you should be calling to understand the situation. On the flip side, if you have missed a deadline it is much better to pick up the phone to explain why vs emailing.
Email helps you communicate but it doesn’t build relationships. When you are emailing back and forth you are exchanging information but you aren’t doing anything to improve your relationship with the other person. When you call, and even better when you meet face to face, you are building trust and rapport.
Emailing and calling each have their place. I hope this guide has helped you to understand when to use each of these communication methods.