Have you ever set out to write a simple e-mail only for it to turn into a 10-paragraph essay? Oops…should have just picked up the phone and called.
We’ve all been there. But which one is better—a call or e-mail? The answer? It depends.
If you want to learn when to e-mail and when to make a phone call, read on for tips and strategies for EVERY situation!
Advantages and disadvantages of calling versus e-mailing
Some think e-mail communication is just as effective as voice communication, but you might be surprised to learn what the research shows otherwise.
In 2021, researchers Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley found that voice-based interactions like talking on the phone, voice, and video chat created stronger social bonds than text-based interactions through e-mail and texts. They also noted that people’s expectations consistently undervalued the benefit of the connection from more intimate voice-based interactions.
In order words, when talking rather than e-mailing or texting, there are positive social and relational benefits that are good for our own well-being and the person we’re speaking with.
This is because so much more goes into verbal communication than just words. Voice tone, volume, cadence, and speech patterns tell the listener about you, your intentions, and whether they want to do business with you.
As you consider what route to take, here’s an overview of the pros and cons of e-mailing and calling. Depending on the circumstance and environment–personal or professional–they may change so you’ll want to use this as a general guide.
|Pros of e-mail communication|
|Ideal for sharing simple data and facts—who, what, when, and where|
|Helpful for multiple recipients of the same message|
|Ability to carefully craft message|
|Great for record-keeping purposes|
|Efficient for those working different schedules or in different time zones|
|Can be drafted and scheduled for a later date|
|Efficient for simple message|
|Cons of e-mail communication|
|Can be undelivered or lost in the inbox|
|The tone of voice can be easily misinterpreted|
|Complex concepts can result in multiple back-and-forth conversations|
|Pros of phone calls|
|Building relationships and developing personal connections|
|Quick response to questions|
|Can efficiently go back and forth on questions or clarify complex materials|
|Less likely to be misinterpreted|
|Cons of phone calls|
|May catch the recipient off guard|
|Requires a quiet environment|
|Requires you to know your material instead of using something scripted|
|Might go to voicemail (and be deleted or ignored!)|
|May take more time to reach the person (phone tag!)|
Now that you know the pros and cons, here are questions to help you decide which is best for your situation.
9 Scenarios When a Phone Call Is Likely the Better Option
After a conflict
While it might feel easier to avoid talking to the person by sending an e-mail, a conversation can go a long way in healing hurt feelings and mending the relationship.
Why? Because your words and tone express your intent and emotion to the other person, it leaves less room for misunderstanding or the wrong impression. Conversations also carry more weight than an e-mail because they require a certain level of vulnerability which builds trust.
Even in a highly charged situation where you don’t believe you owe the person an apology, simply saying, “Let’s figure out a way to work through this. How can we move forward?” can help you move on to the next interaction with less stress and worry.
Want to up your conflict resolution game? Become a Jedi using these 9 winning conflict resolution tips.
2. If you need an immediate response
Let’s say you have a supplier that needs an answer by the end of the day to move forward with a critical component in your supply chain. You don’t have the authority to make the decision, but you know the decision-maker is traveling. Pick up the phone and call the person. Even if they don’t answer, you can leave a message indicating the matter is time sensitive.
You may also want to follow up with an e-mail with “URGENT REPLY REQUESTED” in the subject line.
Of course, this approach only works when it is genuinely urgent or time-sensitive.
3. When you’re concerned about someone
Do you have an ordinarily upbeat co-worker who seems withdrawn? Has someone taken on a challenging assignment or had a family member recently diagnosed with a severe illness? Sensitive and personal topics are usually better addressed by phone or in person. This allows you to show empathy and make a connection, demonstrating a more human side.
And while it’s almost always appropriate to express care and concern for colleagues, receiving a personal e-mail in a professional setting may not feel comfortable for the recipient. However, offering support in whatever way you can with a phone call or voice mail message can have a positive and lasting impact.
4. When you are resigning from a job
You’ve found your next career move and have to tell your current boss you’re leaving. While it may be easier to send a carefully worded e-mail, it’s generally better to call your boss—or better yet, go to their office—to deliver the news that you’re resigning.
First, you’ve typically had some relationship with this person over time, so talking with them acknowledges their position and signals that they are important in your career journey.
Second, regardless of how you feel about the person, it’s a good idea to leave on a positive note and to preserve the relationship. You never know when you might need a reference, or your name might come up in conversation, so you want to leave a positive imprint.
Finally, follow up on your conversation with a formal letter of resignation to your boss or the human resources department so they have what they need on their end.
5. When you’re asking for a favor
You have a plumbing issue at home and have to ask a coworker to cover a conference call. Or you need an introduction to a sales representative at another company. So, you need to ask a friend or colleague for help. You may think that e-mailing or texting would be fine, but studies show that how you ask can substantially affect the outcome.
Did you know that audio and video requests were 86% more effective than e-mail requests? Yep! And researchers Vanessa Borhns and M. Mahdi Roghanizad also found that in-person requests were 67% more effective than audio and video calls.
The next time you need a letter of reference, you may be better off making a phone call to your former boss, laughing about a shared experience, and then making the ask. Hopefully, that reignited connection elicits a positive memory, making them more likely to pen a glowing reference letter on your behalf.
Bottom line: if you have a request, it’s likely better to call, and if it’s a significant ask, try to do it in person.
6. If you’re turning down a job offer
You’ve made it through a lengthy interview process and have a job offer on the table. But after careful consideration, you’ve decided to turn it down. Figuring out whether to call versus e-mail can be tricky.
As in the other scenarios, the guiding principle is the relationship. Generally, if you connect with the hiring manager, it’s nice to make a personal call.
Here’s a sample script to keep you in good standing:
Hello, [hiring manager name.]
I wanted to follow up on your offer for the [position name.] I appreciate the opportunity you’ve offered.
It was a difficult decision, but I’ve concluded that it’s best for me to [move in another direction / stay in my current position] and [insert brief reason why].
I hope we can stay connected through [LinkedIn / professional organization}.
Thank you again for your time.
If you cannot connect with a phone call or feel like an e-mail would be more appropriate, it’s entirely acceptable for a reply via e-mail. Feel free to modify one of our templates for your specific situation: (HYPERLINK TO THE OTHER ARTICLE)
7. If you’ve taken too long to respond
Understandably, some e-mail messages are missed or go unread. After all, the Harvard Business Review found the average businessperson receives over 100 e-mails daily, with another 200 messages in the inbox waiting for an action or response.
If one of those unopened e-mails is important or from someone you need to respond to, like your boss, picking up the phone is probably the best way to handle the situation. Simply owning up to your oversight is honest and relatable. Plus, by making the phone call, you avoid adding to their e-mail overload, and your response languishes in their inbox.
If the struggle with an overflowing inbox is all too familiar, read 7 Tips to Avoid Information Overload and Manage E-mails to find some relief from this common problem.
8. When there’s bad news
Sometimes, you have to tell an employee that a deadline has moved up, the budget’s been cut, or their position has been eliminated. No one likes to be the messenger in these difficult situations. But if you’re the bearer of bad news, it’s essential to speak to the individual rather than send an e-mail.
As tough as it may be, a conversation helps eliminate any misunderstanding or misinterpretation. It also allows you the opportunity to be empathetic and understanding. Be sure to allow for plenty of time to answer questions or clarify details to prevent making a bad situation worse.
9. When there’s good news
Did you accomplish a major milestone at work? Is a co-worker being promoted? Was the client pleased with your team’s presentation? These situations merit a personal phone call to those involved. Speak with the people involved and celebrate the win, no matter how big or small.
Genuine recognition goes a long way to making employees feel good about their hard work and builds bonds between coworkers. Additionally, celebrating small successes inspires people to attempt and achieve larger goals.
Feel free to send a follow-up note of congratulations for their “feel good” file.
10. When the information is complex
More complex communications, like those which require additional context or will likely result in questions, maybe more effectively done by talking. The ability to explain the background and discuss various elements makes it easier for both parties and is often accomplished more quickly than in a lengthy e-mail thread.
And remember that if there are questions you don’t know how to answer, it provides an excellent opportunity to follow up by e-mail with the answer and a summary of the conversation.
Remember, you don’t always need to start or finish a conversation using the same method. Sometimes, it makes sense to start with an e-mail to set up a phone call, particularly when there is no existing relationship, and you feel it might be more beneficial than cold calling.
11. When the message might be misinterpreted
Too often, written words, without the benefit of tone and inflection, don’t come across the way they are intended. This situation can lead to hurt feelings, resentment, and even a loss of the relationship.
Research from New York University and the University of Chicago found that readers get stuck in their perspective, understanding a writer’s intent only 56% of the time! What else is being misunderstood in nearly half our written communication?
Read e-mails aloud a few different times in various tones. Does the content sound sarcastic, angry, or offensive? If there’s even the slightest hint of these tones, consider rewriting or just picking up the phone to call the intended recipient.
12. When you’re trying to establish a relationship
Suppose you’re in sales or new to a company or position and want to develop new relationships. The most effective way to do that is likely to pick up the phone. This allows your personality and tone of voice to shine through and helps establish trust. A personal touch also shows how important and valued an individual is—and who doesn’t like that?
What if you dislike making phone calls?
You are not alone if you have phone anxiety. We have some great tips for Phone Call Anxiety.
Read: 10 steps to conquering your phone anxiety through voice tone, volume, cadence, and speech patterns. You can become a phone ninja in no time!
5 scenarios when an e-mail is likely the better option
When the person prefers e-mail
When your relationship is well-established, and there’s a sense of trust, you are more known to each other, which makes it easier to understand the tone, intention, and meaning behind the written word.
If you’re trying to develop a rapport with someone and they’ve asked you to send them an e-mail, then start there and build a relationship through e-mail until they’re ready to talk on the phone. You won’t win someone over by disregarding their wishes from the beginning.
When the message is simple
Simple conversations, like sharing data or details about the who, what, when, and where, can often be done by e-mail and easily forwarded or reshared to anyone who needs the information.
But if you have had two e-mail exchanges and the issue is still unclear or unresolved, it might be better to pick up the phone or talk in person. You’ll need to use your best judgment and the context to decide.
When you need to update several people at once.
If you’re updating a group of people and cannot hold a meeting, an e-mail and subsequent e-mail threads may help keep everyone in the loop.
When you want to follow up a conversation confirming details
It may be helpful to document a conversation, particularly when you first contact someone over the phone. If you catch them off guard, they may not have been mentally prepared to discuss the topic. Following up lengthy conversations with an e-mail summary can be helpful to be sure you’re on the same page.
When you want an electronic paper trail
Sometimes there’s a reason—legal or otherwise, to put information in writing. It provides a history so that when questions arise, there’s documentation of the interaction.
Conversely, if it isn’t something you want to see on the news, in court or in your boss’s inbox, consider whether it’s appropriate to send at all.
Make the Right Call, Every Time
With this information, you can feel confident in choosing the best communication method for you and your situation. Remember these four guiding concepts:
- Communication is about relationships. Know whether you’re building or maintaining a connection.
- Understand your content. Is it short and sweet or more complex?
- Read your e-mail aloud in various tones to ensure it won’t easily be misunderstood.
- If you wouldn’t want it on the front page of the newspaper, don’t put it in writing.
If you’re ready to pick up the phone to call a new colleague but want some new ideas for how to get to know them, read our 57 Killer Conversation Starters that will set you on a path toward amazing and memorable conversations.