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Emails are a regular occurrence for pretty much every business on the planet.
Millions of them flit across the planet every day, containing everything from critical information to inside jokes. However, despite our reliance on them, emails as a communication form are less than ideal. Why is that? Well, when it comes to conversation, the most valuable tool we rely on is the non-verbal cue. This includes facial expression, body language, and (crucially) voice tone. Emails have none of these things! And this can cause much confusion (and indeed fallout) between parties if not handled carefully. Just ’cause you write it one way, doesn’t mean it’s going to be received as intended.
The Minefield of Tone
Look, we’ve all been there. You’re emailing back and forth with a colleague or client, and suddenly a particular sentence stops and gives you pause. It doesn’t even need to be a sentence! Even the slight adjustment from “Thanks!” to “Thanks.” can send the receiver wheeling like a punch-drunk prizefighter. You think, “Are they angry at me? Are they unimpressed with what I said? Were they expecting something different? Oh God, are they cursing my very name to their family and friends?”. It colors the whole conversation. Regardless of the rest of the content, the sword of Damocles hanging over the whole exchange will inevitably be that missing exclamation mark.
It’s fair to say that the majority of tone misinterpretations probably have to do with a misconstrued sense of hostility. We want to be liked and we want to do well in our jobs, so when a potentially antagonistic phrase, sentence, or word comes up, we go into panic mode. Things like this can have people re-reading their sent emails over and over again, scouring the text for an offence that may not even be there. Of course, we assume the worst, and we also assume it’s all about us. It’s often not. Remember, the person on the other end of the email has a life too, and there could be a hundred reasons why their email appeared curt – 99 of which have nothing to do with you.
How Does Tone Impact Email Correspondence?
Why are emails so often misunderstood? Because reading and intuiting voice tone is so natural to us in our everyday interactions, we instinctively look for it in emails. And because we’re anxious creatures who enjoy wallowing in prolonged misery, we also attach the most negative connotation possible in the event that we can’t discern the intended one. The right communication techniques are crucial to operating well in your job. Let’s take a look at some common ambiguous phrases that can be easily misinterpreted, but might actually be totally harmless.
Tone Problem: “John”
Let’s begin with a really simple one. Most emails are addressed to the recipient at the start of the message body. There’s a whole matrix of tonal misfires that can occur here. Let’s assume we’re talking to John. “Hi John” would be a fairly standard way to open an email. “Hello John” is another standard entry, but note that it already sounds a little more severe than the preceding option. Using just the person’s name without any salutation is a third option, and as soon as most people read that, they get a subconscious wave of uneasiness. “John”. It seems clipped, curt, and potentially even aggressive. But it might be a purely innocent shorthand, or even a personal preference on the part of the email writer.
Tone Problem: “This Isn’t What We Agreed When We Last Spoke”
An ambiguous statement like this can be read two ways. Without any tonal interpretation, it could seem like the person is saying, “I see what you’re doing here. Trying to pull one over on me. Unfortunately for you, I remember when we last spoke, and I’m going to call you on your deception right here and now”. But think about it another way. It could also infer the sentiment of, “You know what, I’ve had a think about the direction this project is going and it’s just not what we agreed on when we last spoke. With your help, I’d like to bring it back to that juncture and refocus”.
Tone Problem: “!”
The dreaded exclamation mark. The addition of one can lend a breezy, light feel to proceedings, while a full stop in its place can seem like the somber pronouncement of a weighty custodial sentence. There are no rules with the exclamation mark. Some people like to use them and some people don’t. You can’t read too much into it either way. “Send it through when it suits!” and “Send it through when it suits.” can have the same meaning, despite our brains trying to tell us that the former is encouraging and optimistic, while the latter is surly and preemptively unimpressed.
Tone Problem: Sarcasm
Sarcasm is a tonal issue in real life, so in terms of emails, it can torpedo a communique like nothing else. Best practice? Unless you know the person you’re emailing with very well, avoid altogether. This is especially true if it’s a professional email, where even a small fallout could have a ripple effect and larger consequences. There’s enough going on without this hand grenade of potential faux pas; avoid like the plague.
How to Convey the Right Tone in Emails
From an agency management perspective, tone is a really important factor to consider. It can be used to light a fire or put one out, so having a solid grip on tone will help you become a better communicator. Good news is, it’s not that hard. Your first step should be to assess your relationship with the person you’re emailing and adjust your writing accordingly. Be polite; if you’re unsure about a greeting or sign off, it’s best to err on the side of caution and go for the politer option. Don’t type in all caps. And don’t over-punctuate!!!!!!!!