10 tips to avoid misinterpreting tone in emails
In the workplace, email is king. It’s fast, efficient and allows you to communicate without having to engage in a real-life conversation.
However, there are benefits to face-to-face conversations that don’t always translate to email conversations.
Non-verbal cues are important. Without the additional meaning that non-verbal cues bring to a conversation, the words written in an email are open to monstrous misinterpretation. Email readers and writers, beware!
Body language such as facial expressions, posture, gestures and tone of voice all aid in the interpretation and context of the message being delivered. Sarcasm, for example, is very difficult to detect in written form.
Here are 10 tips to avoid misinterpreting an email, or on the contrary, getting an email misinterpreted.
1. CAPS LOCK CAN COME ACROSS AS AGGRESSIVE
The use of Caps Lock is something that can be easily misinterpreted when two people are in two different climates (and I’m not just talking about the weather).
In a conversation, there is a physical climate and a psychological climate. When having a face-to-face conversation, you are sharing the same physical climate with someone, which is your immediate environmental surroundings. While you can both share the same physical climate, it is quite common to have two very different psychological climates. For example, one person may be having a very calm day while the other person is riddled with stress.
When communicating over email, not only are you and your recipient not in the same psychological climate, you are not even in the same physical climate. The only thing you have to create meaning and context are the words written on the screen… and your vivid imagination.
While Sally might write, “I NEED THIS BACK BY 2 PM” in Caps Lock to emphasize how urgent her message is, Tim may interpret the same message as brash and aggressive.
2. Avoid negative words in the subject line
Negative words are often directly correlated with a bad tone. By sending an email with negative words in the subject line, it is less likely to be opened and responded to.
Attempt to rephrase your subject lines if they involve negative words. Instead of, “Latest report was not good enough,” the subject line could be, “Changes to be made in latest report”.
3. Avoid negative words at all
Everyone has their own Ladder of Inference in which they use their past experiences to make assumptions and form beliefs about what is happening in the present moment. The use of negative words over email can cause the reader to jump to conclusions and assume the sender is angry, irritable or hostile. Always be aware of how your reader will perceive your message and you can avoid any unnecessary tension in business relationships.
Here is an example of a negatively worded email:
Can you tell Bruce that it is completely unacceptable to bring his disobedient dog (WHO I CAN SMELL FROM A MILE AWAY) into the office? It distracts all my employees and I don’t remember when we became a doggy daycare!? Did I miss that memo??? Was I not present at that meeting??? I am extremely disappointed in your managing abilities and complete disregard for following workplace health and safety. Deal with it.
Here is an example of how it could be written without the negative language (and attitude!):
Good afternoon, John.
I trust this email finds you well.
John, it has been brought to my attention that Bruce has been bringing his new puppy into work. While I understand Bruce doesn’t want to neglect his new pet, having a dog in the office does not align with our Work Health and Safety Act.
As Bruce falls under your managing umbrella, I would suggest scheduling a meeting with him to discuss what is acceptable in the workplace, and to create a solution.
If you would like me to also be present at this meeting, please let me know and schedule it in my calendar.
4. Cater to the recipient
As well as being aware of how your reader will perceive your message, aim to be proactive in anticipating any questions your reader may have in response to your message.
People not only like to know what is happening but when, how, where and why it’s happening. If you are informing a student about changes to a program, be sure to provide reasons why, when exactly this change will be happening, how it will happen and where they can go to find more information on the topic. If you were to simply say that there will be changes, it will leave the reader bewildered and exasperated.
5. Avoid emoticons
Emoticons can become an unprofessional crutch to use in email communication. Often the sender will decide something sounds “too harsh” and insert a smiley face at the end of the sentence to appease the reader. Not only is this lazy, but it can also be perceived as condescending in a business sense. In this situation, it is best to simply rephrase your original sentence.
Emoticons can also be perceived as inappropriate in a business relationship. While a winky face emoticon may be considered cheeky and harmless to the sender, the recipient may interpret that same winky face as offensive and inappropriate.
6. Don’t play the blame game
It is best to not point fingers when communicating via email. The key is to use a passive tone and replace the use of the pronoun, “you”, with, “the”.
For example, instead of, “You failed to submit your assessment task”, a more passive tone could be, “The assessment task was not submitted”.
To further improve the tone of a message being delivered, it is important to take ownership of the situation of the recipient. For example, instead of, “We haven’t heard from you in a while”, a more passive tone could be, “Can we assist you with your course?”
This way, your reader will not feel any guilt or shame by being blamed for the lack of communication in this scenario.
7. Avoid excessive punctuation marks, ok!!???!?!?!
While the sender may consider their use of punctuation marks as passionate, bashful, or even humorous, the reader could easily perceive them as manic, overly dramatic and chaotic.
For example, the subject line of an email that reads, “Apologies!!! We forgot to attach your Certificate to the last email!!!” sets an unnecessarily chaotic tone that could cause the recipient to panic. A more appropriate subject line could be, “Our sincere apologies, please find your Certificate attached”.
8. Give a greeting and a farewell
You wouldn’t walk into someone’s house, drop a pile of paperwork on their desk and grunt, “Forward this to Michael from Finance,” and then walk out. That would be considered rude, and over email, it is no different. Adding a simple, “Good morning, Jason,” as well as a “Kind regards,” can improve the tone of your email.
Saying please and thank you doesn’t hurt, either.
9. Be personable, but professional
It is important to not turn into a robot when communicating via email, as that could be perceived as cold and abrupt. As long as you stick to the topic at hand, use appropriate language and are polite, it is possible to be personable whilst also professional.
Here is an example of being very professional, but not necessarily personable:
Documents attached. Print out by 5:00 pm. Place on my desk. I leave at 5:15 pm. If you cannot complete this task by 5 pm you must inform me. Will make other arrangements.
It sounds like Susan has been taking notes from R2D2 on how to compose an email! Here is how to remain professional without sounding like artificial intelligence:
Good afternoon, Margaret.
Please find the assessment documents attached to this email.
They must be printed out and placed on my desk by 5 pm today (Monday).
I am leaving at 5:15 pm, so if you don’t think you will have them on my desk by 5 pm, please let me know. I can make other arrangements.
Thanks, Margaret. I hope you are having a lovely Monday.
10. Re-read your emails before you send them
Spelling and grammar errors can set a disorganised and sloppy tone to a business email. Sending the wrong email to the wrong person can also be perceived as neglectful and even cause offence to the recipient.
By taking the time to skim over your email before you send it, you could be saving yourself a lot of time and face in the future.