The Tone of Your E-Mail Matters

By Dino Londis

If you didn’t know the basic history of communication, you would most certainly guess that the phone call came after the e-mail. After all, a phone call is instant, synchronous, and presents much less of a chance for miscommunication. As we all know, words never convey the whole story. There is tone, facial cues, gestures, cadence and even volume. All of these are lost in e-mail correspondence. 

Let the Ambiguities Begin

On the surface, it would seem that an e-mail thread would reduce confusion because the e-mail can be re-read to fully understand the meaning, whereas a phone call or face to face conversation floats off into space.  Written words are ironclad in any correspondence, right?  So read this sentence:  "You can never stare at the sun too long."  Does this mean you will go blind if you do, or stare as long as you want?  If I said it to you face to face, you’d know. The above sentence has no tone, no emotion.  As a reader, I"m imposing my emotion and getting whatever meaning I want.  Now read this e-mail from your boss: "Where were you Friday?"  "You think: What part of Friday?  I was here.  Were you expecting me someplace?  How do I ask without further looking stupid?"

Lost in Transmission

Anger, sarcasm, irony, jokes, facial cues aren’t included with the words in your email. According to Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, "If you don’t consciously insert tone into an e-mail, a kind of universal default tone won’t automatically be conveyed.  Instead, the message written without regard to tone becomes a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices and anxieties."

I collected a lot of e-mail stories for this article, but this one best sums them up.  Recently, a colleague responded to trouble ticket during a vacation day and decided to fix the application remotely.  After the fix, he shot an email updating his supervisor. Where he was expecting a quick thank you for doing this on a vacation, he got: "Don’t let it happen again."  It was completely out of character for the supervisor to be so blunt and rude. If he said this in person, he would obviously be kidding.  But was he?

Do’s and Don’ts

By now you know that you should never write an angry email.  Angry emails maintain that level of anger long after you’ve cooled down.  Now, I don’t mean write it and don’t send it.  I mean don’t write it at all.  If you must write it, do as Harry Truman, and hand write it then stuff it into a desk drawer.  Like money, electronic documents are too fluid and you can quickly lose control of them.  Imagine you’re venting on your boss in a reply to, "Where were you Friday," with no intention of sending it, and just blowing off steam. Instead of hitting Shift+P, you accidentally hit Control+Enter and "poof" you’re half-finished flame is its way.

  • Do pick up the phone when the header reads: "Re Re Re Re Re" and the conversation becomes too obtuse.  It’s a case where the meaning is getting lost in the words.  
  • Do Not start an e-mail with ‘Per our conversation…’  It projects hostility and in the end doesn’t work anyway. No matter how well you’re attempting a CYA (Cover Your Back) with email it won’t help you if they want you out.  Believe me. I’ve worked in an IT joint where no amount of documentation saved me no matter how right I was. They wanted me out and I was out.
  • Do remove the recipient(s) from the send line until the e-mail is complete. This prevents unfinished e-mails from being sent.  I paste them into the first line of the body until I finish writing the e-mail.
  • Do turn on "always check spelling" before sending. In addition to cleaning up misspellings, it gives you one last chance to stop it from being sent.  This has saved me more than once. 
  • Do Not request delivery and read receipts. This will irritate the recipient even before they open the mail. 
  • Do assume only the kindest words in what by all accounts is insulting. Ignore the insult and speak directly to the question.  (This works in marriage too!)  Or just don’t answer with an e-mail.  Any e-mailed response, no matter the kindest intention will be read through that angry disposition.  Call instead.
  • Do Not write "Please advise" It’s rude and redundant because it assumes that the recipient will not respond. "What is the status of the installation of the speech recognition software?  Please advise." The e-mail is already requesting advisement. 
  • Do read it through the eyes of the recipient when proofing the e-mail.  Ask yourself what could the recipient misinterpret?  What would they assume you are projecting by your questions?
  • Do treat all e-mail as if everyone will someday see it. Your e-mail may someday be legal discovery for something unrelated, and your supervisor will have a reason to look at everything.
  • Do Not recall an e-mail.  It doesn’t work.  It just says that you didn’t like what you wrote, which will make us scrutinize the email for the mistake we think you made. Oh we’ll find something.

Although I stress the need for workplace policies, no policy is more important than common sense.  There are too many variables in human interaction for policy to cover.  Protect yourself by making a habit of doing the right thing.

Do you have any e-mail horror stories?