As convenient as they can be, emails, like any form of written communication online, can be a breeding ground for misunderstandings and awkward situations. Let’s examine a brief exchange:
Federal Agent: 'Hillary, we can't have these emails being sent back and forth through your personal account. We need them moved to our official address ASAP!' May 12, 2016 09:14
Secretary of State: 'Got it. I'll try to move them over there in the next couple of weeks.' May 12, 2016 10:23
Federal Agent: 'Not good enough! There's a lot at stake here, don't muck about!' May 12, 2016 10:24
Secretary of State (leaves the computer and storms into the Fed's office with a tearful eye.): ‘A 'please' wouldn't kill you, James! You really hurt my feelings there. Never mind moving the darned emails about. I'll just delete them altogether.’
See how little it takes to set off an explosion? By simply concocting a curt email, disregarding the emotions of the recipient, and clicking Send, this kind of communication can become quite the recipe for disaster.
Unfortunately, coming across as unprofessional or downright rude in an email (even if you didn’t mean to) is a pretty common problem in the workplace.
In contrast to talking in-person or over the phone, email excludes some fairly essential aspects of communication, such as the color and the tone of someone's voice.
When we speak, our emotions, authority, and even the degree of our urgency, are conveyed through our voice. Capturing all of these in written form can be tricky, if not impossible at times.
The Power Of A Misinterpreted Email
Consider the phrase “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” In the absence of an email recipient not hearing your tone and voice, your message is open to way more interpretation. That’s the main reason why/how emails can cause huge blow-ups.
When it comes to emails, your wording is vital. If you’re not careful, you can believe that you’re saying something a certain way, while the person on the other end will sense you as being pushy or rude. Something as simple as a short, abrupt sentence can make someone feel like you don’t care enough, or that you’re being disrespectful.
Remember that every individual has a different innate sensibility, so a certain etiquette of writing can appear casual to one person, but completely pushy and disrespectful to another. Poorly-written emails can snowball into full-blown conflict among teams, and can even cause customers to stop doing business with you.
So how do we manage email etiquette? Here are five simple tips to guide the next words that you type into an email, especially if it’s an important one.
How to Sound Respectful in an Email
1. Be Direct but not Curt - Beating around the bush to avoid sounding too pushy can come across as patronizing. If something needs to be done, you shouldn't feel reluctant about being direct.
On the other hand, intentionally writing curt messages is also quite rude. A curt email shows disrespect and disinterest in the person on the other end. A direct email shows that you trust the person on the other end, and feel free to communicate the gist of things in an efficient manner.
2. Take Your Time - More often than not, messages sent through email tend to sound awkward or downright rude if they've been put together in haste. We’re not talking about the ones that say, “Sure, that location works for me,” or “Hey Jane, wondering if you’re able to join this week’s lunch n’ learn?” We’re referring to the ones that address an important question or issue that has to do with the person themselves.
For example, you might want to be extra careful (and take extra time) when writing to an employee who’s having some problems at work, and needs your help.
To avoid getting misinterpreted, take your time when writing an email and make sure you've expressed yourself fully before clicking 'send.' It may also help to reread your message once or twice before sending it, as a precautionary measure.
3. Be Polite - All things considered, nothing beats a little politeness. When concocting an email, make sure to start with a greeting, such as a simple 'Hey Jane.' Also, make sure to add a 'please' when making a request. These little bits of kindness can go a long way towards avoiding misinterpretations.
4. Avoid using these words - When it comes to creating an email, some words should just be avoided. We’re not saying you should censor yourself by any means , but if you’re writing an email, try to exclude these where possible. Here are five common examples:
- No - (in the sense of correcting someone) There’s no use correcting someone’s info via email. If you want to present the recipient with some information that differs from what they said, simply say it without the initial negation.
- Sorry, but… - Ever received an email that feels like the ‘sorry’ is an excuse? If you’re sorry about something, apologize with sincerity, and admit your wrongdoing. Inserting the word ‘but’ after the ‘sorry’ diminishes the value of the apology. In some cases, it might actually cause the other person to become more upset, because no one wants an insincere or fake apology.
- Actually - Saying ‘actually’ in an email sounds patronizing. It’s like the other person doesn’t know their stuff, so you need to present them with what’s actually going on.
- Fine - ‘Fine’ is pretty much a ‘meh’ in written form. Using it will make you seem uninterested and rude.
- Swear Words - It’s tough to come across as serious and professional when your email is filled with swear words. It doesn’t matter how much rapport you’ve established with the other person, it’s best to err on the side of caution here.
If you’d like to see more words that you should avoid when writing emails, check out this article. *Spoiler alert* There’s six more where those five came from, for 11 in total. All of which are very rude, no doubt.
5. Be Empathetic - Always remember that, when you’re writing an email, there is a human recipient on the other end. While maintaining an official tone and a certain degree of etiquette at first is the safest bet for starting off your conversation with someone (especially if they’re new to you), you should always be ready for a more cordial exchange if the other party initiates it.
For example, if the person you’re talking to tends to use smiley faces, following suit shows that you mean well and are comfortable with a more casual style of communication. Tactics like this makeup for some of the communication that you lose without facial expressions and hand gestures.
Writing an email shouldn't be rocket science. To avoid sounding rude as a person in a leadership position in your business, it’s important to be precise, explain what you want in detail, and reread it before sending. By following these few simple steps, you'll be considered a respectable and kind co-worker.
According to some research on the topic of incivility, being respectful towards your employees is considered one of the most important qualities of a leader. If you believe that you are clumsy when it comes to writing emails, getting it right will benefit you in more ways than you’d think.
At the end of the day, email is just one form of communication, and there’s no reason why you should restrict yourself to it exclusively when it comes to your business dealings.
Sometimes simply picking up the phone and making a call can be a much more effective solution. Also, your colleagues and business partners will see you as more of a three-dimensional character if they see you trying to reach them in various ways.
Writing emails is a great alternative to meeting someone or giving them a call. It’s got a connotation of ‘officialness’ and distance to it, so as long as you use it wisely, and are always respectful and kind when you do, you should be able to avoid miscommunication.
Simone Brown is a performance coach who helps leaders and teams increase productivity. Her approach is grounded in behavioural and brain-based strategies. She believes success isn’t just about talents and smarts, it’s about the development of emotional intelligence. Simone is also a speaker, and talks about topics such as emotional intelligence, millennials, and the importance of purpose.