64.3, August 2017

Effects of Communicating with Emails and Texts in Risk Communication: Information Poor, Writer-Based, A-Synchronous

By Carolyn Boiarsky, Purdue University Northwest


Purpose: This article examines how electronic messaging may have affected communication between engineers and managers during three crisis situations—the Columbia shuttle breakup, the BP/Horizon oil rig explosion, and the Skokie, IL, landslide.

Method: A rhetorical analysis was conducted of email messages written during the three crisis situations. The analysis was based on previous studies which indicate that writers of electronic messages provide insufficient information, compose writer-rather than reader-based texts, and use inappropriate formats for communicating complex or controversial issues. The messages were examined to determine if they contained these communication problems and whether these problems may have affected the outcome of the various situations.

Results: A failure to include sufficient information characterized a number of the email messages sent prior to the BP/Horizon explosion. Writer- rather than reader-based messages were written prior to the BP/Horizon explosion as well as during the Columbia breakup. Some of these messages included personal and irrelevant information as well as social media conventions conflated with business formats. Various BP/Horizon oil rig messages were also often communicated in an inappropriate format for discussing complex and controversial information. On the other hand, email messages sent following the Skokie landslide appear to be reader-based, contain no personal or irrelevant information, are free of social media conventions, and provide responses in a timely manner.

Conclusion: Had writers in the BP explosion and the Columbia breakup written reader-based texts as well as recognized the asynchronous nature of electronic communication, their messages may have been more effective.

Keywords: Risk Communication; BP/Horizon Gulf Oil Rig Explosion; Columbia shuttle accident; Skokie, IL, Landslide; reader-based writing.

Practitioners’ Takeaway

  • Ascertain that responses provide all necessary information for all requests within a message
  • Ensure messages are reader-oriented
  • Recognize that readers are in a low-context culture
  • Use an organizational format that matches readers’ reading patterns when using electronic media
  • Avoid conflating social media conventions with business formats
  • Consider which of several formats—electronic media, traditional snail mail or interoffice mail, telephone, or person-to-person discussion–is the best format for communicating information, especially if the message is concerned with a complex and/or controversial topic
  • Recognize that electronic media are asynchronous and provide signals to the reader on when a response is expected.


The amount of electronic messaging being read and sent in a single day is mind-boggling. Not only have snail mail and interoffice letters and memoranda between engineers and managers migrated to emails and texts, but the telephone has also been fused into these electronic forms, resulting in employees on call 24/7 to write, read and respond to a never-ending stream of messages. According to the Radicati Group (2016), emails continue to be the leading form of business communication. It is expected that over 132 billion emails per day will be sent by 2018. The number of business email accounts is expected to increase at a rate of 3.5% annually. By 2020 it is expected that there will be over 1.1 billion business and consumer email accounts worldwide (Radicati Group, 2016). The typical corporate email user receives about 121 messages per day (Smith, C., 2017). The ADI survey found that approximately four hours per day is spent on work-related emails (Abramovich, 2016).

The device on which electronic messages are read has also migrated from the stationary computer to the tablet, to the smart phone, and most recently to the watch. According to Radicati Group (2016), over 1.7 billion users worldwide will be using some form of mobile device for reading email messages in 2017. The ADI survey (Abramovich, 2016) found that the use of smart phones had grown 21% in 2016. For those ages 18-39, the smart phone has become the primary device for reading emails (MarketingCharts, 2014); Mujamdar (2013) estimates that this demographic checks their smart phones for email approximately 150 times a day. Fifty-five percent of email is now opened on a mobile device. (Smith, L., 2016). With the demand for the Apple watch outpacing production (Reuters, 2015), it is estimated that this device will eventually be used as much as the smart phone for reading messages. For the Z (or I) generation (born between 1995 and 2009), texting has become the format of choice with email considered almost as retro as snail mail (Mims, 2016).

The use of the iPhone to communicate information is exemplified by the messages contained in the email chain in Figure 1. The three messages are related to monitoring construction for a new Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) sewage plant for Chicago’s Skokie district by the Walsh Group in 2015. The chain involves three people from two different organizations: Getahun Denikew and Gregory Poulos from MWRD and Matthew Pozzi from the Walsh Group, a subcontractor of the MWRD. Construction previously caused a landslide at a nearby railway site, shutting down the CTA’s (Chicago Transit Authority) Yellow Commuter Line. As the construction on the sewage plant proceeds, the land around the Yellow Line has to be shored up so that the Line can resume running. In addition, the engineers need to keep close watch to ensure that the vibrations from the construction do not move the land near the track over ¼ inch. It was determined that the landslide had been caused by the movement exceeding the previously determined ¼-inch limit.

The email from Pozzi, relates to a previous email from Tom Krug of the CTA. Denekew’s message contains two forwarded messages, both of which have been sent from iPhones.

From: Pozzi, Matthew <mpozzi@walshgroup.com>
Sent: Thursday, July 23, 2015 1:09 PM
To: Getahun, Denekew; Little, Joshua
Cc: Poulos, Gregory; Busza, Beata
Subject: RE: 20150722 – MWRD Skokie – Tilt-meters
Attachments: RE: 20150720 – MWRD Skokie – Tilt-meter Readings

The attached was our response. We are not monitoring the same soldier pile for movement as part of our new monitoring plan as updated in today’s meeting.
Thanks, Matt Pozzi
The Walsh Group
Cell (312) 656-7406

From: Getahun, Denekew [mailto:GetahunD@mwrd.org)
Sent: Thursday, July 23, 2015 9:30AM
To: Little, Joshua; Pozzi, Matthew
Cc: Poulos, Gregory; Busza, Beata
Subject: Fwd: 20150722 – MWRD Skokie -Tilt-meters

We would appreciate to know if there was any response by Walsh to the below message from CTA’s Tom Krug. Thank You
D. Getahun, RE

Sent from my iPhone Begin forwarded message:
From: “Poulos, Gregory” <PoulosG@mwrd.org>
Date: July 23, 2015 at 7:18:10 AM CDT
To: “Getahun, Denekew” <GetahunD@mwrd.org> Subject: Re: 20150722 MWRD Skokie- Tilt-meters

Has Walsh addressed this with you? Sent from my iPhone
On Jul 22, 2015, at 3:57 PM, Getahun, Denekew <GetahunD@mwrd.org> wrote:


Sent from my iPhone
Begin forwarded message:
From:”Krug,Tom” <Tom.Krug@gcinc.com>
Date:July 22, 2015 at 3:54:46 PM COT
To: “Matt Pozzi(mpozzi@walshgroup.com)”
<mpozzi@walshgroup. com>,”Josh Little (jolittle@walshgroup.com)”
Cc: “Greg Poulos (gregorv.poulos@mwrd.org)”
<denekew. getahun@mwrd. org>,”dennis.bilik@mwrd.org”
Subject:FW:20150722 MWRD Skokie -Tilt-meters
Updated tilt meter results.
Thomas P. Krug,P.E.
Direct 847.777.7562 I Cell847.224.0050 I Fax 847.272.5393

From: Bertin,i Guy [mailto:gbertini@transitchicago.com)
Sent: Wednesday,July 22, 2015 3:53PM
To: Krug,Tom
Cc: Boeldt,Derek;McCarthy, Michael (CTP);Harper,James;Lauer, Steve (SLauer@wje.com)
Subject:2 0150722- MWRD Skokie- Tilt-meters

Please see attached graphs showing readings from the tilt-meters on
FCS1ERS and South Bridge Abutment structures.

There is an increasing trend being shown for the tilt for the bottom of
‘Wall C’.

Guy Bertini

Figure 1. Use of iPhone to send messages. (Highlights added by this author. Threads are in reverse chronological order—last to first—as they would appear in an email chain.)

The use of a phone or watch, unlike a computer or telephone, allows engineers and managers to communicate easily and quickly regardless of their location or the time of day. There is no need for anyone to return to an office to check email.

The message in Figure 2, which is related to the need for completing the MWRD sewage plant in a “timely manner” following the landslide at the Yellow Line track, is sent by Josh Little of the Walsh Group to Jason Schneider with Collins Engineering. Little has sent the email in response to a message that he received from James Harper of CTA. The chain, involving three people at three different companies in three different locations, is communicated within a 24-minute period.

From: Little, Joshua <jolittle@walshgroup.com>
Sent: Thursday, August 6, 2015 5:20 PM
To: Jim Harper; Poulos, Gregory
Subject:: Fwd: MWRD Project- Schedule versus RiskFyi below

Josh Little
Sent from my iPhone

Begin forwarded message:

From: Jason Schneider <JSchneider@collinse ngr.com>
Date: August 6,2015 at 5:04:24 PM COT
To: “Little, Joshua” <jolittle@walshgroup.com>, “Pozzi,Matthew” <mpozzi@walshgroup.com>, “Petersen,Duane” <dpetersen@walshgroup.com>, “Everson, Nick” <neverson@walshgroup.corn> Cc: Michael Garlich <MGARLICH@collinsengr.com>, Lin Van <lyan@collinsengr.com>
Subject: RE: MWRD Project -Schedule versus Risk

We are performing the final review currently/tonight and will make the final revisions in the morning. We will send it ASAP.
Jason Schneider, S.E.,P.E.
Direct 312.236.5953

From:Little,Joshua {mailto:jolittle@w alshgroup.com] Sent: Thursday,August 06, 2015 4:47PM
To: Jason Schneider <JSchneider@collinsengr.com>; Pozzi, Matthew <mpozzi@walshgroup.com_>;
Petersen, Duane <dpetersen@walshgroup .com>; Everson, Nick <neverson@walshgroup.com>
Subject: Fwd:MWRD Project- Schedule versus Risk
See below- we really need rev2- we getting this today?

Josh Little
Sent from my iPhone

Begin forwarded message:

From: “Harper,James” <JHarper@transitchicago.com>
Date: Augu_st 6,2015 at 4:40:44 PM COT
To: “Little, Joshua” <jolittle@walshgroup.com>,”gregorv.poulos@mwrd. org”
<gregorv.poulos@mwrd .org>
Cc:”Seimetz,Karen” <kseimetz@transitchi cago.com>, “Kowalski, David”
<DKOWALSKI@transitchicago.com>,”Boeldt, Derek” <dboeldt@tr ansitchicago.com>, “McCarthy, Michael (CTP}” <tnmccarthy .ctp@tran sitchi cago. com>, “’McGormley, Jon’”
<JMcGormley@wje.com>, “Tom Krug (tom.krug@gcinc.com)” <tom.krug@gcinc.com>,” Bushell, Chris” <CBusheII@transitchicago.com>
Subject: FW: MWRD Project – Schedule versus Risk

As a follow-up to our progress meeting today, the CTA would like to reinforce our priorities for the repairs and restoration of the Yellow Line tracks. First and foremost, we want to protect what remains of our infrastructure, including the bridge abutment structure and the remaining portion of the embankment. It is in no part-vs interest to risk any further damage to this infrastructure, even if additional risk mitigation efforts imply further delays to the overall restoration schedule. We believe the proposed installation of the inclinometer will help us better protect the bridge abutment by giving us early warning of any soil movement as Walsh excavates down to the final elevation. Also we, and I am sure you, want to be completely certain that the current FCS-3 structure design associated with walls A and C will perform to an acceptable level (especially at the bottom elevation of the structure). Collins submission of Revision 2 to their calculations may help resolve our concerns, but we will need a few days to work through these calculations once they are received.
In closing, CTA has demonstrated that we are ready to apply all necessary resources to support the restoration efforts, including expedited reviews of all submissions from Walsh’s engineers. We will continue to do all that we can to assist in achieving the earliest possible service restoration date. However, service restoration goals must be balanced with our goal ta protect our remaining infrastructure, and to ultimately rebuild
a high performing, low maintenance embankment.
Jim Harper
Chief Engineer, Infrastructure
Chicago Transit Authority
Cell Phone: 312-907-4969

Figure 2. Threads in a chain of emails over a 24-minute period. (Highlights added by this author.)

Communication Failures: Traditional Media

Despite writers’ ability to communicate quickly via electronic messaging to provide information that could potentially prevent a crisis situation or that could ameliorate one, their messages have often been disregarded. In fact, the inability of writers to communicate effectively has been cited as a contributing factor in crisis situations for the past half century.

For examle, failures in communication between engineers and between engineers and managers have been cited as a major cause of such disasters as the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear incident in 1979 and the Challenger and Columbia shuttle accidents in 1986 and 2003 respectively. Herndl, Fennell and Miller (1991) in their analysis of the TMI and Challenger accidents conclude that “both these technological disasters involved failures of communication” (p. 279). They cite two kinds of communication failure: (1) miscommunication, which is concerned with the “how” of communicating, the “lack of a common language…within an organization,” and (2) misunderstanding, the “what” of communicating, the difference between the “formal and social dimensions of language” (p. 303).

TMI was partially caused by a failure of a manager at one nuclear plant to understand the reason for a change in procedures as recommended in a memo from an engineer at another plant. According to The Report of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island (1979), “Lessons from previous accidents did not result in new, clear instructions being passed on [communicated] to the operators [at TMI]” (p. 10). According to Mathes (1989), the memo, suggesting that new procedures be written, was composed in such a way as to preclude action. Mathes suggests that the writer ‘misinterpreted’ his audience.

The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident found that “Had these matters [Solid Rocket Booster joint seal] been clearly stated …it seems likely that the launch of the 51-L might not have occurred when it did” (p. 104). Herndl, Fennell, and Miller (1991), Dombrowski (1991), and Winsor (1988) cite a writer’s inappropriate rhetorical decisions for managers’ failure to heed a letter providing the results of a test on the effect of temperatures on the O-rings. According to Winsor, managers and engineers interpreted the “same facts from different perspectives” (p. 101). Winsor suggests that the memorandum should have provided an interpretation of the results rather than simply presenting the numerical analysis: “That this memo did not communicate its intent is shown by the fact that the people who read it were uncertain about what it meant” (p.105). Herndl, Fennell, and Miller argue that the writers of the documents, warning of a potential disaster if the problem with the O-rings is not fixed, were in lesser positions than those reading the documents and were unable to indicate their expertise rhetorically to their readers, leaving their readers with the perception that the warnings could be disregarded.

The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster does not go as far as citing communication failure as a root cause for the Shuttle accident, but the Columbia Accident Investigation Board does: “Communication failures…figured in a decision-making process that permitted…internal flight safety problems to bypass key Shuttle managers” (p. 100). While much has been written about the PowerPoint slide (Tufte, 2006) in which the designers failed to emphasize the inadequacy of the model used to determine the extent of the damage that the dislodged tile may have caused, little has been discussed about Robert Dougherty’s email (see Figure 5), which came close to approximating the results of the tile’s impact on the shuttle, but was basically ignored because the writer, like the writers of the warning documents related to TMI and the Challenger shuttle, failed to make appropriate rhetorical decisions.

Communication Failures: Electronic Media

The migration to messaging via electronic media has exacerbated the problems of communication. While much has been written about the efficacy of using social media during crisis situations as a means of communicating with communities that might be affected (Potts, 2014), that issue is outside the scope of this article, which is limited to an analysis of the electronic communication transmitted among those involved in the decision-making processes related to a crisis situation (i.e., engineers and managers).

Writers’ ability to make effective rhetorical decisions to persuade their colleagues and managers to heed their warnings appears to become increasingly difficult with the use of electronic messaging, resulting in less informed decision-making. This article examines the results of rhetorical analyses of key electronic messages involved in three recent crisis situations—the Columbia Shuttle break-up in 2003, the BP/Horizon oil rig explosion of 2010, and the Chicago/Skokie sewage plant landslide in 2015. The reports of the governmental commissions studying the causes and effects of the first two of these incidents cited many of these messages as indicative of major communication problems. A final report on the third incident has not yet been published.
The results of the analyses indicate that messages appear to meet Flower’s definition of writer- rather than reader-based texts:

In Reader-Based writing, the writer does not simply express thought but transforms it in certain complex but describable ways for the needs of a reader. Reader-Based prose is a deliberate attempt to communicate something to a reader…. Writer-based prose is the under-transformed mode of verbal expression…. It is ego centric…. It is a verbal expression written by a writer to himself and for himself. (Flower, 1999, pp. 19-20).

Results also indicate that the messages are often truncated and “information poor,” failing to provide necessary background information, or rambling, including irrelevant personal statements and narratives. Writers may adopt an inappropriate style and fail to organize their information according to their readers’ pattern and style for reading electronic media. Writers may also (mis)perceive that their message is synchronous and instantaneous. Sometimes, too, their style may more nearly resemble that of social media texts on Facebook or LinkedIn than business correspondence. This integration of a social media style into documents warning of potential problems further decreases readers’ perception of the imperative nature of a document—a major problem indicated in previous incidents, as Herndl, Fennell, and Miller (1991) suggest.

Information poor messages

Analysis of emails sent prior to the BP/Horizon oil rig explosion appears to support Ekroth’s findings (2014) that email and text messages are often ‘information-poor’ (Ekroth, 2014). As writers hurry to respond to a message, often at an inconvenient time and inappropriate location (walking along an office corridor on the way to a meeting or grabbing lunch at the cafeteria), they often reply with minimal wording and provide information for only one request in a message, regardless of the number of items it contains. In addition, their response is often at a surface level, despite the complexity or the potentially disastrous consequences of the situation.

As incoming messages continue to grow along with the number of devices that provide immediate access, employees are finding themselves on call 24/7, pressured to write, read and respond “in a timely manner.” The expected time for a response in 2014 decreased from four hours to one hour by 2015 (Vanderkam, 2016). One of the major causes for this pressure is a misperception that, because the telephone as a transmitter of voice messages is instantaneous and synchronous, the transmission of emails and texts is also. Electronic messages, however, are a-synchronous. The average time for an email response is between 23 and 28 hours (Vanderkam, 2016; Dabbish, Kraut, Fussell, & Kiesler, 2005). Only 50% of emails have a response within 2 hours (Vanderkam, 2016). Ninety percent of people who are going to respond do so within two days. The longer the delay between messages, the less chance there is that there will be a reply. Older people respond less quickly than younger people, while mobile device users respond quicker than those on computers (Kooti, Aiello, Grbovic, Lerman, & Mantrach, 2015).

The pressure on both managers and engineers to respond immediately to their messages has created an electronic communication overload (Jackson 2012; Barley 2011) which for want of a better name I shall call ECSS (Electronic Communication Stress Syndrome). This pressure to respond quickly has resulted in a truncated form of communication. Messages are written with minimal wordage and without much thought (Skovholt, 2009). Responses may be limited to a single item even if information for several items is requested, causing the writer of the initial message to request additional information. When a message is concerned with a complex or controversial topic, this lack of information may lead to misinterpretation or failure to understand a response altogether.

Writers’ failure to include background information and details may increase the potential for misunderstanding as well as require both the writer and the responder to expend an increased amount of time writing additional threads in a chain in order to obtain all of the information needed to make a decision or take action. (Conversation threads related to the same subject create a chain of emails or text messages with participants responding sequentially to each other).

In the chain of messages in Figure 3, for example, the reader needs to engage in additional emails to obtain all the information initially requested. The chain relates to the preparation by engineers on the BP/Horizon oil rig to cap the Macondo well in 2010. Drilling for oil in deep water requires a sequence of two drilling procedures: (1) drilling the well itself, which requires a large rig, and (2) drilling for the oil, which requires a smaller rig. The Gulf explosion occurred when the engineers on the first rig were completing drilling the well and preparing to pull out so the smaller rig could begin drilling for oil. In the first email in the chain in Figure 3, Dobbs asks, “What swayed the decision to 7” liner?” Apparently, she has not received any background information that would have provided her with an understanding for that decision. Morel provides her with a basic explanation, “7” is so we can run a long string…” but there is apparently more that she might want to know as he adds “If you want more details, let me know.” While this is a traditional rhetorical convention in business communication, it indicates that there is more information that Morel has not included that Dobbs may want to know. However, he does not include the details, forcing her to continue the chain if she needs further clarification. Furthermore, Morel does not provide a response to her question, “do y’all know if there is an SOR floating around…,” so she may need to repeat the question in an additional thread.

From: Dobbs, Sarah
Sent: Tuesday, March 30,2010 10:33 AM
To: Morel, Brian P; Hafle, Mark E
Subject: Pip Tags and Casing
Guys –
We would like pip tags near the casing hanger, just below the production liner top, just above the sand, and one near TD.
Also, what swayed the decision to 7” liner? Was it availability or cementing concerns?
And, for historical knowledge, in August it looks like y’all discussed (with Hu) the option of 10-3/4” casing to 3000’ below the mudline to accommodate a larger 1 5K SCSSV. It was our understanding that the casing was unavailable, so that option was eliminated. Is that correct?
By the way, do y’all know if there is an SoR floating around for this well.Sarah Elisabeth Dobbs
BP Gulf of Mexico Deepwater
Completions Engineer
From: Morel, Brian P
Sent: Tuesday, March 30,2010 10:54 AM
To: Dobbs. Sarah; Hafle, Murk E
Subject: RE. Pip Tags and Casing
7” is so we can run a long string instead of a tieback and still cement If we had run 7-5/8” we would not have been able to cement as a long string with the amount of casing available, and would have had to double Hie source -3000’ extra to bring ilie 7-5/8” above Hie 11-7/8” lianger a few hundred feel. We did not have this pipe in stock or easily available, and were able to get T from Ncxcn.
Not running the tieback, saves a good deal of time/money as well as reduces complexity due to the conventional casing hanger or having to run a second packer and PBR assembly for the Versaflex hanger. If you want more details let me know.
We will take care of getting the pip tags. Do you want the casing hanger one moved to the top of the cross-over instead?
From: Dobbs, Sarah
Sent: Wed Mar 31 21:15:192010
To: Morel, Brian P
Subject: RE: Pip Tags and Casing
Importance: Normal
Yes, that is great. Thanks.
Sarah Elisabeth Dobbs
BP Gulf of Mexico Deepwater
Completions Engineer

Figure 3. A chain of email messages during the BP/Horizon preparation to cap off the well. (Highlights added by this author. The chain has been re-arranged chronologically—from earliest to last—to facilitate readability.)

Conflation of social media with technical/scientific communication

The analysis of the emails prior to the BP/Horizon oil rig explosion and following the Skokie landslide appears to indicate that writers tend to conflate technical/scientific correspondence with that of social media sites, such as Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook, as well as with social texting. This conflated style is either truncated, another cause of information poor messages, or rambling, including personal and irrelevant information. In addition, it is often more informal than traditional technical/scientific correspondence.

Truncated messages The short, brief style of messages appears to be caused by (1) the writer’s adoption of social media style and/or (2) the writer’s failure to recognize that readers of technical/scientific messages differ from those on social media sites.

  1. Accustomed to limiting messages to the 140-character requirement for Twitter and the brief captions on Pinterest, writers appear to adopt a similar abbreviated style for technical/scientific correspondence. The average length of the six threads on the chain in Figure 1 is 18 words with two (Krug and Poulos) of the threads only 4 and 6 words respectively. Krug’s message is not even a complete sentence. The message from Guy Bertini mentions a trend but does not indicate whether this is acceptable or not and the message from Pozzi does not explain the reason for the decision to stop monitoring the soldier pile. Although Figure 2 contains a long thread of almost 250 words, the other threads range from only 3 to 20 words.
  2. The writers of many of the BP/Horizon messages appear to perceive their readers as similar to their readers on the social media sites they frequent. Readers on such sites as Facebook and Pinterest are usually aware of the writer’s background and recent experiences, having followed the story of the writer’s life for some time. They are satisfied with short snippets of new information (i.e., updates). But in technical/scientific and business environments, readers may be located in different geographic locations as they were during the BP/Horizon oil rig explosion, in which engineers were on the rig and managers were on land. Readers may also have different specialties and be assigned to different divisions. They may even work for different companies, as they did when the landslide occurred in the Skokie/Chicago area. Subcontractors were on-site but the representatives from the agency that had subcontracted with them to do the work were not.

Sites like Facebook and Pinterest are composed of closed groups of people in which certain knowledge or interests are held in common. Such groups, which can be as large as the African-American community or as small as the members of a single household, appear to fall within what Hall (1976) has defined as a “high context” culture. Hall suggests groups may fall into high or low context cultures, depending on the experiences and knowledge that the members of the group hold in common. Messages in high context cultures contain little or no background information and often omit details because it is assumed [correctly] that readers already have the background information and are knowledgeable in the topics under discussion. Readers included in a Facebook or Pinterest group have usually been involved in reading a writer’s posts for a period of time and are knowledgeable about certain aspects of the writer’s life and interests so that often the writer does not have to provide background information or details that have been discussed previously.

A problem occurs in technical/scientific communication when writers mistakenly perceive that their readers—employees, managers, clients and subcontractors in large corporations and organizations—compose a high context group. As the emails in Figures 1-3 demonstrate, readers are often in different organizations and assume different roles in those organizations. The readers of messages in such situations compose a low context culture. Even though they may know each other from having worked together on previous projects, they may only be in touch with each other sporadically on a particular assignment and may not be familiar with all of the decisions made previously. Dobbs (Figure 3) had to ask about the background of the 7” liner. Dougherty (Figure 4) early in his letter indicates he has “worked together [with his readers] so many times” but he doesn’t know whether his readers have already considered his idea. He states in the final sentence to the very long first paragraph, “I suspect many or all of these have been gone over by you guys already.” Engineers and managers often need background information and elaborated details to understand a message. When writers fail to realize that they are writing in a low rather than a high context environment, they may omit information their readers need to complete a task or make a decision.

Rambling messages The tendency to include personal information and narratives not only increases the number of words in a message, but may delay the presentation of the main point, creating a text that may cause readers to stop reading, which is what the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (2003, p. 169) suggested probably occurred when the NASA team received the letter in Figure 5.

This letter was written to people who were working 24/7 to figure out the location of the damage and the size of the damage caused to the Columbia Shuttle when a piece of foam came off on liftoff and hit the spacecraft. The letter contained the best guess “breach of the wheel well” of all the information coming in,” but it was located in the middle (line 8) of the very long introductory paragraph [highlighted by this author].

Hi David,
I talked to Carlisle a bit ago and he let me know you guys at MOD were getting into the loop on the tile damage issue. I’m writing this email not really in an official capacity but since we’ve worked together so many times I feel like I can say pretty much anything to you. And before I begin I would offer that I am admittedly erring way on the side of absolute worst-case scenarios and I don’t really believe things are as bad as I’m getting ready to make them out But I certainly believe that to not be ready for a gut-wrenching decision after seeing instrumentation in the wheel well not be there after entry is irresponsible. One of my personal theories is that you should seriously consider the possibility of the gear not deploying at all if there is a substantial breach of the wheel well (color mine). The reason might be that as the temps increase, the wheel (aluminum) will lose material properties as it heats up and the tire pressure will increase. At some point the wheel could fail and send debris everywhere. While it is true there are thermal fuses in the wheel, if the rate of heating is high enough, since the tire is such a good insulator, the wheel may degrade in strength enough to let go far below the 1100 psi or so that the tire normally bursts at. It seems to me that with that much carnage in the wheel well, something could get screwed up enough to prevent deployment and then you are in a world of hurt. The following are scenarios that might be possible…and since there are so many of them, these are offered just to make sure that some things don’t slip thru the cracks…! suspect many or all of these have been gone over by you guys already:1 People talk about landing with two flat tires…! did too until this came up. If both tires blew up in the wheel well (not talking thermal fuse and venting but explosive decomp due to tire and/or wheel failure) the overpressure in the wheel well will be in the 40 + psi range. The resulting loads on the gear door (a quarter million ids) would almost certainly blow the door off the hinges or at least send it out into the slip stream. ..catastrophic Even if you could survive the heating, would the gear now deploy? And/or also, could you even reach the runway with this kind of drag?
2.. The explosive bungles…what might be the possibility of these firing due to excessive
If they fired, would they send the gear door and/or the gear into the slipstream?
3. What might excessive heating do to all kinds of other hardware in the wheel well…the hydraulic fluid, uplocks, etc? Are there vulnerable hardware items that might prevent deployment?
4. If the gear didn’t deploy (and you would have to consider this before making the
commitment to gear deploy on final) what would happen control-wise if the other gear is down and one is up?
(I think Howard Law and his community will tell you you’re finished)
5. Do you belly land? Without any other planning you will have already committed to KSC.
Admittedly this is over the top in many ways, but this is a pretty bad time to get surprised and have to make decisions in the last 20 minutes. You can count on us to provide any support you think you need.

Best Regards,

Figure 4. Dougherty sends a rambling email to colleagues in another geographic location, suggesting the consequences of the flying tile to the Columbia Shuttle. (Highlights by this author)

Informal style In addition to adopting a truncated or rambling style of messaging found in social media, writers also often use a style in their salutations and closings that is more informal than that previously used in business correspondence, including the use of slang and incomplete syntactic structures. In assuming an informal style, writers may insult their readers in their salutations or mislead readers by selecting a word that approximates the meaning they wish to convey rather than using the precise term or phrase. In Figure 2, Dobbs starts her letter with “Guys,” which may have a gender connotation for those before the Millennial generation. She probably would have been disturbed if one of the men had sent a letter to the “Gals” or “Ladies.” Even for the Millennial generation and beyond, the term connotes familiarity that may or may not be acceptable to the recipient (Metcalf, 2016). She also uses the informal ‘y’all,” a regionalism which is often used in oral communication but not in standard American business communication.

The email in Figure 5 relates to the situation with the Columbia Shuttle in 2010 as engineers try to figure out what exactly occurred when the tile flew off the shuttle and the consequences of that mishap. The email, which provides an insight into Dougherty’s emotional response to a message he has received, includes language that he might not have used had he been writing a traditional memorandum. In the first thread of the chain, he writes “I’ll bet there are a few pucker strings pulled tight,” “it’s crazy to even hit the deploy gear button,” “you’re dead in that case,” and “My two cents” —all language more suitable to a response on a chat site.

Original Message
From: Robert H. Daugherty
Sent: Monday, January 27, 2003 3:35 PM
Subject: Video you sentWOW!!!

I bet there are a few pucker strings pulled tight around there!

Thinking about a belly landing versus bailout (I would say that if there is a question about main
gear well burn thru that its crazy to even hit the deploy gear button…the reason being that you might have failed the wheels since they are aluminum..they will fail before the tire heating/pressure makes them fail..and you will send debris all over the wheel well making it a possibility that the gear would
not even deploy due to ancillary damage…300 feet is the wrong altitude to find out you have one gear
down and the other not down… you’re dead in that case)
Think about the pitch-down moment for a belly landing when hitting not the main gear but the trailing
edge of the wing or body flap when landing gear up…even if you come in fast and at slightly less pitch
attitude…the nose slapdown with that pitching moment arm seems to me to be pretty scary…so much
so that I would bail out before I would let a loved one land like that.
My two cents.
See ya,
To: “’Bob Daugherty’”
Subject: FW: Video you sent
Date: Mon, 27 Jan 2003 15:59:53 -0600
X-Mailer: BInternet Mall Service (5.5.2653.19)

Thanks. That’s why they need to get all the facts in early on-such as look at impact damage from the spy telescope. Even then, we may not know the real effect of the damage.

The LaRC ditching model tests 20 some years ago showed that the Orbiter was the best ditching shape that they had ever tested, of many. But, our structures people have said that if we ditch we would blow such big holes in the lower panels that the orbiter might break up. Anyway, they refuse to even consider water ditching any more~l still have the test results[ Bailout seems best.

Figure 5. Dougherty responds as if he had received a social media text from a friend to a previous message. (Threads are listed in chronological order—first to last–to facilitate reading.)

Inclusion of personal information The (con)flation of social media genres with technical/ scientific ones often leads writers to include personal information that is not related to the focus of a message, resulting in a TMI response (Too Much Information). The email thread in Figure 6, which was sent on April 17, three days before the BP/Horizon oil rig blowout, is a prime example of this error. It was written by an engineer on the rig to a manager on land. In light of the results of the problems discussed in the email, it is spine chilling when he comments, “I’ve got to go to dance practice in a few minutes,” and concludes with an exclamation point, indicating joyful exuberance, “We’re dancing to the Village People!”

David, over the past four days there has [sic] been so many last minute changes to the operation that the WSL ‘s [well site leaders] have finally come to their wits end The quote is —flying by the seat oj our pants. Moreover, we have made a special boat or helicopter run every day.Everybody wants to do the right thing, but. this huge level of paranoia from engineering leadership is driving chaos. This operation is not Thunderhorse [one of the world’s largest rigs ever built. The rig was damaged by Hurricane Dennis.] Brian has called me numerous times to make sense of all the insanity. Last night’s emergency evolved around 30 bbls [barrels] of cement spacer behind the topping and how it would affect any bond logging (1 do not agree with putting the spacer above the plug to begin with). This morning Brian called me and asked my advice about exploring other opportunities both inside and outside of the company.
John, I’ve got to go to dance practice in a few minutes- Let’s talk this afternoon, for now, and until this well is over, we have to try to remain positive and remember what you said below – everybody wants to do the right thing. The WSLs will take their eve from you. If you tell them to hang in there and we appreciate them working through this with its (12 hours a day for 14 days) – they will. If should be obvious to all that we could not plan ahead for the well conditions we ‘re seeing, so WE have to accept some level of last minute changes.
We ‘ve both [been] in Brian’s position before. The same goes for him. We need to remind him that this is a great learning opportunity, it will be over soon, and that the same issues – or worse – exist anywhere else. I don’t think anything has changed with respect to engineering and operations.

Mark and Brian write the program based on discussion “direction from you and our best engineering practices. If we had more time to plan this casing job, I think all this would have been worked out before it got to the rig. If you don’t agree with something engineering related, and you and Gregg can’i come to an agreement, Jon or me gets involved. If IT’S purely operational, it’s your call.
I’ll be back soon and we can talk,
We’re dancing to the Village People!

Figure 6. David postpones providing assistance to the men on the rig, explaining his personal reasons for delaying his help. (Highlights by this author. Threads have been listed chronologically-first to last—to facilitate reading.)

Failure to provide for readers’ reading patterns

Previous research has indicated that people read hard copy in a “T” pattern, reading the first paragraph and then skimming down the middle of the following paragraphs. New research indicates that people reading emails and texts follow an “F” pattern (Nielsen, 2006; Biedert, Buscher, & Vartan, 2012), reading the first sentence, skimming the remainder of the paragraph, reading the beginning of the second paragraph and then skimming down the left margin of the remainder of the document. If important information is included in the middle, it is usually missed. Thus it can be deduced that those reading David’s email in Figure 5 probably never read his discussion of the tire wheel that provided what was probably the closest description the engineers had of the actual situation.

Asynchronous communication

Because electronic correspondence tends to be brief and often omits necessary background information and details, it is a poor medium for communicating complex information or providing a forum for conflicting ideas. However, it is used for just these purposes. Rather than a face-to-face meeting or a telephone discussion, people often prefer to use electronic media, believing mistakenly that emails and texts provide the same kind of two-way communication that a telephone provides. But the perception that electronic communication is two-way and that conversations occur simultaneously and in real time is false. They are asynchronous (Ashley, 2003).

During a telephone conversation, a person can question an aspect of a description, ask for the definition of a term, or request a fuller explanation of a topic and receive an immediate response, even if it is “I don’t know or “I’ll get back to you.” However, during an email or text conversation, the communication can be suspended before a response is made. Of the approximately half of all messages that people read, only about one third of these ever receive a response (Skovholt, 2009).

Based on the previous statistics, it appears that time between messages in an email or text chain may range anywhere from a few minutes to several days and up to two weeks. These gaps in time have numerous causes. Participants may leave a chain before it is concluded because they have turned to other work. They may not perceive that the message is sufficiently important to require an immediate response. They may also need time to acquire the requested information. Messages requiring more than a quick response are often put aside to be worked on later (Stack, 2009).

Although reading and responding to a message requesting attendance at a meeting can be done in this fashion, reading and responding to a message that concerns a critical engineering decision, such as the one in Figure 6, probably cannot be. Because of the ease of sending electronic messages, other forms of media are often rejected. Yet, if issues are complex or open to misunderstanding, multiple forms of communication, including the telephone, hard copy letters/memoranda sent by snail mail and fax, and person-to-person meetings may need to be used. Both the telephone and person-to-person meetings provide real time, one-on-one opportunities to discuss a topic or clarify a misunderstanding during a single time slot, not over a period of time (Derks & Bakker, 2010; Cheese, 2015).

Walz perceives the complexity of an issue in Figure 7 and recognizes the need to discuss the discrepancies he perceives over the telephone. He ends the thread by stating, “I will call you directly.”

From: Walz, Gregory S
To: Guide, John
Sent: Fri Apr 16 00:50:27 2010
Subject: Additional Centralizes John,
Halliburton came back to us this afternoon -with additional modeling after they loaded the final directional surveys, caliper log information, and the planned 6 centralizers. What it showed, is that the ECD at the base of sand jumped up to 15.06 ppg. This is being driven by channeling of the cement higher than the planned TOG We have located 15 Weatherford centralizers with stop collars (Thunder Horse design) in Houston and worked things out with the rig to be able to fly them out in the morning. My understanding is that there is no incremental cost with the flight because they are combining the planned flights they already had. The maximum they could fly is 15.
The model runs for 20 centralizers (6 on hand + 14 new ones) reduce the ECD to 14.65 ppg, which is back below the 14.7+ ECD we had when we lost circulation earlier.
There has been a lot of discussion about this and there ore differing opinions on the model accuracy. However, the issue, is that we need to honor the modeling to be consistent with our previous decisions to go with the long string. Bretl and 1 tried lo reach you twice to discuss things. David was still here in the office and I discussed this with him and he agreed that we needed to be consistent with honoring the model.
To be able to have this option we needed to kick things off at 6:00 pm tonight, so I went ahead and gave Brett the go ahead. We also lined up a Weatherford hand for installing them to go out on the same flight. I wanted to make su*~ thafwcdid not have a repeat of the last Atlantis job with questionable centralizers going into the hole. John, I do not like or want to disrupt your operations and I am a full believer that the rig needs only one Team Leader. I know the planning has been lagging behind the operations and I have to turn that around. I apologize if I have over step my bounds.
I would like to discuss how we want to handle these type of issues in the future. Please call me tonight if you want to discuss this in more detail. Gregg
Drilling Engineering Toon Leader QoM Drilling & Completions Office: I
From. Guide, John To: Walz, Gregory S Sent: Fri Apr 16 12:48:11 2010
I just found out the stop collars are not part of the centralizer as you stated. Also it will take 10 hrs to install them. We are adding 45 pieces that can come off as a last minute addition. I do not like this and as David approved in my absence I did not question but now I very concerned about using them

From: Walz, Gregory S
Sent: Friday, April 16, 2010 12:53 PM
To: Guide, John
Subject: Re: Additional Centralizers

I agree. This is not what I was envisioning. I will call you directly


Sent from my BlackBerry

From: Guide, John
Sent: Fri Apr 16 18:27:43 2010
To: Sims, David C
Subject: FW: Additional Centralizers
Importance: Normal

See below, I left a message on your cell phone.

Figure 7. Walz suggests using a telephone to further discuss the complex issue on this email (Highlights by this author. Threads in the chain are listed in chronological order to facilitate reading.)

Laura Stack, President of an international consulting company in Denver, Colorado, claims that “Communication becomes richer as you add human elements like voice, tone, facial expression and physical expression.” She has developed a diagram (Figure 8) ranging from person-to-person communication for ambiguous, long, or difficult messages to letters and reports for clear, simple messages. She places email in the middle of the range (2009).

Figure 8. Channels of Communication (Stack, 2009).

While electronic mail may not be the best choice for discussing complex topics, it can serve to provide readers with pre-call information that they may need in order to have an informed discussion on a telephone or person-to-person. Just after the landslide in Skokie, Seimetz, an attorney for the CTA, sends the email in Figure 9 to Ron Hill with MWRD, indicating her frustration in being caught in a game of telephone tag. In an effort to prepare Hill to discuss the need for additional borings to shore up the embankment, she sends him background information for her forthcoming request, thus eliminating the need to provide that information in the telephone call and, instead, allowing her to spend the time discussing whether or not Hill can accede to her request.

Figure 9. The problem with using the telephone (i.e., telephone tag) for communicating.


There were numerous causes for the crisis situations discussed in this article, including the defective environments created by the various organizations that sanctioned the “normalization of deviance” and that repressed negative criticism. However, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (2003) also noted as a root cause the failure of writers to communicate necessary information clearly and in a timely manner to readers.

To avoid some of the problems associated with electronic messages that have been discussed here, I offer the following recommendations:

  1. The most important information should be located at the beginning of message.
  2. Electronic messages should be written to provide for the reader’s ‘F’ reading pattern.
  3. All necessary information should be included in a single thread. The reader should not need to request more information.
  4. Readers’ prior knowledge, wants, and needs should be recognized by providing all of the background information and details readers require to make a decision or take action.
  5. If a message requires time to obtain information, the responder should notify the person who sent the request that the message has been received and that a response will be forthcoming as soon as possible. This relieves the reader from some of the pressure to respond, thus preventing the responder from giving the writer only partial information in an effort to respond quickly, and it relieves the writer’s anxiety, wondering if the message was received.
  6. The conventions for business/technical correspondence instead of social media should be applied.
  7. Personal and irrelevant information should not be included.
  8. Issues that are complex or controversial should be discussed via telephone or in-person.

Note: The messages in this article have been obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and reproduced exactly as they were obtained.


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About the Author

Carolyn Boiarsky is a Professor in the Department of English at Purdue University Northwest-Calumet Campus in Indiana. Her latest book, Risk Communication and MisCommunication: Case Studies in Science, Technology, Engineering, Government and Community Organizations, is published by University Press of Colorado in both electronic and hard copy versions. Boiarsky received the Society of Technical Communication’s Frank R. Smith Article of the Year Award and has made numerous presentations at STC’s annual conferences. She is available at boiarsc@comcast.net.

Manuscript received 2 September 2016, revised 27 November 2016; accepted 12 December 2016.