When to call and when to emailTo email or to call?  It seems to be the perpetual question for many people, whether they are fully employed or searching for new opportunities.  For the purpose of relationship building, a telephone call is better.  But for documentation reasons, an email is better.  How do you know which way to pick and in which circumstance to pick it?

Phone Calls

Email cannot build a connection with others.  Conversations build relationships, not emails where humor, tone and many colloquialisms do not translate well.  When communicating via telephone, body language (which is so very important in face-to-face communications) disappears.  However, a person can “hear” body language in the tone of the voice at the other end of the line.  When talking on the phone, tone accounts for 86% of total communication, words only account for 14%.

Phone calls allow you to gain buy-in, especially if the subject matter requires input from many different people.  With email, there will be crossed wires as people reply too early or late or delays as certain people think that a subject is closed but others are waiting for responses.  An equivalent conference call (while forcing people to possibly address an issue at an inconvenient time) takes less time and effort.

Email cannot do discovery well.  On the other hand, a phone conversation is better if you want to learn more about the other person and his/her situation and needs.  Email cannot tell you what a person’s role in a company is or whether or not the person is a decision maker, but you can quickly do that via phone by asking a few open-ended questions and prompting the other person to talk.

In addition, a phone call is the best choice if you need:

  • To have a quick and open dialogue that could take hours or days to complete via email.
  • To add some level of personality to your questions/dialogue
  • To discuss something sensitive


Email feels safer to many people; the fear of rejection is palpable for many and being told “no” is easier to take via email.  In addition, email allows everyone to skip the 5-10 minutes of niceties that seem to be required with many phone conversations.

However, email cannot leverage any of the nonverbal communication types, which makes up to 55% of face-to-face communication.  This seems to be the main reason for the advent of emoticons, but, they are not appropriate for business communications.  Therefore, the only appropriate way to fully capture the message via email is through word choice, sentence structure or font.  This, if not done carefully, can cause misinterpretations and misunderstandings.   The writer may come across as insincere, impersonal, or aggressive when that is the last thing he/she wanted. For example, you may decide to emphasize a point by using all caps, but the reader may interpret this as shouting or screaming or overt aggression.

Email is also (in many cases) not the most convenient way to communicate, especially if multiple time zones are involved.   No one wants to have a work conversation during non-work hours.  Sending an email allows recipients to read through their messages at their convenience.   In addition, many people do not check their voicemail as often as they check their email.

In addition, email is a better choice if you need to:

  • Provide a recap….a follow-up email to a long conversation can clarify the topics covered and provide a list of next steps.
  • Refer to notes…. Email provides a record of your conversations.  This is much better than simply saving a phone call to your voicemail inbox or writing the information on a notecard as you talk and then (promptly) losing it.
  • Say thank you…..writing out a note (whether it be for email or handwritten) says you took the time to express your appreciation.

Let’s summarize

As with most everything in life, you need to use your judgment when deciding to send an email or pick up a phone.   The bottom line is that if you have to think hard about how to discuss a certain subject or you are pretty sure that you will have to leverage any relationship-building skills, you should pick up the phone and not just shoot off an email.  However, if the discussion is lighter or more transactional, then an email would be appropriate.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule.  If you are asked to communicate in a certain way – either via email or the phone – it is important to use the method that you have been advised to use.

By Christiane Soto, Snelling.com

NOTE:  A full-color, downloadable PDF is available.