Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dangerous Emails: Are people reading it the way you wrote it?


Every time we come up with a new way of communicating with each other, we also develop new and interesting ways to really offend each other. A quote that is sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde goes something like: "I'm sorry I wrote such a long letter, I didn't have time to write a shorter one." It is very difficult to maintain any sense of tone when we condense our words. The shorter the communication, the more tone we tend to leave out, for the sake of information. With fewer tonal clues put in by the writer, the more the reader tends to put in. Thus the easier it is to misinterpret the intent behind the message.

With email, texting, Twitter, Facebook and instant messaging, our means of communicating is getting shorter and shorter.

And a lot of people are getting really pissed off.

If communication between two people really is 80% body language, how can we possibly be clear when writing emails, texting, tweeting, instant messaging and Facebooking? The "old school" way, back when we were still writing letters, was developing and using conventions to create a tonal framework. Consider the conventions in addressing, salutations, body style, the complimentary close and signature of a letter? Ever read a letter that was missing some of these elements? The message appears curt and terse. And sometimes officious. Even downright offensive, which is ironic if it's the same information. But we depend on these things to fill in the 80% of detail that the absence of body language is withholding. We crave this contextual information. And in the absence of it as presented by the sender, we fabricate it as the recipient.

An example: Say you have sent a request for information to a colleague. The response is:

  What exactly do you mean by that?

If you know this person is overly friendly, and is a sticker for detail, you might read this as simply a request for clarification. They want to be sure to get you exactly what you're looking for, so they don't disappoint you.

Now consider that you have sent the request to the most put-upon, argumentative member of the department. They always complain that their plate is too full, and that everyone is making unrealistic demands of them. Now how does it look:

  What exactly do you mean by that?

It's easy to have the same words come across completely differently. Look at it one more time. This time you're sending it to a staff person you have never met before. You have no read on them and have heard nothing about them. It's a blank slate. How does it look now:

  What exactly do you mean by that?

The main point here is that in text-only conversation, if the intent is not made clear by the sender, the recipient will read it in. The more streamlined and immediate the mode of communication is, the more this happens. We won't even get into usage patterns here (chronic email checker vs. twice-a-day reader) and focuses (he's a Facebook person, she prefers email, I live on my cellphone and you use chat exclusively). Those will be subjects for a later blog post. The important thing is to understand the obstacle you are up against every time you send a message by these channels: the potential for misinterpretation of tone is high, and odds are people will be more damning and less forgiving.

So what can you do? Here are some suggestions. This may seem like more work, but a little extra effort here can save you a lot of work repairing a damaged relationship with a customer, co-worker, friend or even family member. These are also things that will quickly become habits, and not require effort.

Writing Conventions
There's a reason it's called E-Mail. It's an electronic letter. So keep as many of the conventions of proper letter-writing as possible. Don't forget a salutation, a proper closing and when possible, something personal.

I need the report by 2:00.

Would sound a lot better as:.


Thanks again for last week's report. I'm going into a meeting at 2:00 and will need to present this week's report then. Please let me know if you can get it to me by 2:00.



If the conversation is going back and forth, you can start to trim a bit of the small talk, but don't forget the conventions. Name, message, conclusion. Never just message.

Note, this is not for business communication, and many scholars think they shouldn't be used at all, but they may make the difference in communications with your family and friends. Initialisms are short acronyms like LOL (laugh out loud) IMHO (in my humble opinion) and JK (just kidding). One of the problems with short terse messages is that is reads as if you are speaking seriously and factually from a position of authority. Which doesn't go over well with anyone who might have a different opinion. My favourite initialism is IMHO, because it grounds whatever you are saying as just your opinion, not a fact you expect the recipient to accept unequivocally. Again, these should not be used in business communications, but there's no reason you can't just say "...in my opinion, I think a better choice is..."

Err On The Side Of Obsequious
If you make the effort to be nice, friendly and polite, there is less of a chance that the reader will be able to misinterpret your message. Think of it as a continuum: misinterpretation can only shift the message so far, so the more you try to make the message polite, the less angry it is likely to be read by another.

Stick To The Facts
The faster and simpler the communication, the more you should focus on facts and details, not opinions. Especially in the world of texting and chat. If the conversation edges beyond simple details, try something groundbreaking - pick up the phone...

There's a neat new program called ToneCheck that you can use to pre-screen an email message to see if you are saying anything contentious. Check it out here. 

Smileys or Emoticons
Those ubiquitous sideways faces grew out of the need to convey tone and intent in just a couple keystrokes. Sarcasm, particularly, doesn't come across well in text communications. A smile :)  smirk :]  or wink ;)  can go a long way to make sure that a joke is read as a joke. Again, this one is not for professional usage.

Read It Out Loud
This is a tip for any writing, but especially a message. The recipient will 'hear' it in their mind with your voice, so why not see how it sounds. Try it a few ways: obsequious, angry, sarcastically. If the message doesn't sound out of place when you read it angrily, there's a chance that the recipient could read it that way.

Be Forgiving
Always remember that everyone you receive messages from is up against the same challenge. So when you receive a message that seems a little off-putting:

  What exactly do you mean by that?

Give the sender the benefit of the doubt. If you need clarity, get it, but make sure you are either really clear yourself in your response message, or else make contact in person or by phone.


You won't always be able to use all of these tools, but incorporating as many as possible will go a long way to avoiding miscommunication and hurt feelings. That may not sound important, but hurt feelings can lose you customers, destroy co-worker relationships and trust in a workplace, jeopardize friendships and make turkey dinner with the family a lot less enjoyable than it should be.

Please feel free to comment! I'd love to see any other strategies that people use, or hear any horror stories you might have. Thanks!

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