Here’s the bad news: you send emails that your customers, clients, and colleagues misinterpret and it’s having a negative impact on your relationship.
We hate to say it, but it’s true. We’re not saying it happens all the time. But a study by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people could only correctly interpret the tone and mood of an email, on average, 50% of the time. On top of that, people believe they’ve accurately interpreted the tone of an email 90% of the time. That means that, even if you’re happy 100% of the time, the recipients of half the emails you send might interpret them as frustrated, agitated, irritated, upset, unhappy, or just “meh.” And nine times out of ten, they’ll think they’re right about it.
When you realize that more than 269 billion emails were sent per day in 2017 – totaling more than 98 trillion emails annually (that’s 98 followed by twelve zeroes) – you can imagine how many misread emails are happening.
It’s not entirely surprising, though. Emails are impersonal in the sense that your intended tone doesn’t necessarily translate into the way it’s written. Emails eliminate the subtle but important facial cues, body language and tone of voice that help people pick up on your mood or tone in a face-to-face conversation.
But fear not. Here comes the good news: with a few simple tweaks, you can make sure you’re giving your email the best chance of being correctly interpreted. Here are seven tips to do it.
1. DON’T YELL
Have you ever looked at a sentence – or even a full email – written in all caps and thought “WHY ARE YOU SHOUTING AT ME!?” If you haven’t noticed this, then you might be a culprit. While many people use capital letters to indicate urgency, most people perceive them as brash and aggressive. Use capital letters sparingly! If you want to highlight an important word, this would be the time to capitalize it. And if you do, in fact, want to e-shout at somebody for a sentence or two, then go ahead and use all caps. But these are the only instances where it is it acceptable to put all caps in an email.
2. Avoid Negative Words
Understanding that email lacks the physical cues and tonality of an in-person conversation, it’s important to be hyper-sensitive to your use of negative verbiage – even more so than in regular conversation. Pad your wording, make it sound softer than you might speak it. Do everything in your power to ensure your words can’t be taken the wrong way. For instance, avoid saying “I won’t be able to get the project done until December 1st.” Instead, try “I’ll be able to get the project done by December 1st.” See the difference? Use pleases and thank yous generously. Avoid words like “fail,” “wrong,” and “blame.” Do your best to emphasize the positive – even when providing criticism.
3. Provide Comprehensive Details, Concisely
In a survey by Ragan, 43% of respondents indicated they see email as the main cause of confusion or resentment in the workplace. Why? Because emails are often vague and cryptic. This means the onus is on the sender to help the reader avoid feeling confused or dejected. The ability to convey comprehensive detail in a concise manner is fine art to master, but it can be done – and it will go a long way in making you an effective email communicator. Don’t be afraid of bullet-points. Eliminate jargon and simplify thoughts. Albert Einstein once said, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” Look at the email you’re writing with that lens. Simplify as much as possible while including all relevant details.
4. Don’t Be Passive Aggressive
There are very few things that drive people crazier than passive-aggressiveness. This feeling is amplified by email. The worst part is, you might not even realize you’re doing it. But it’s important to make sure you’re avoiding passive aggressive verbiage like the plague. Eliminate phases like, “per my last email,” “awaiting your reply,” “please advise,” “circling back,” and “thanks in advance.” And whenever possible, avoid the dreaded reattachment of an email string.
5. Not Too Short, Not Too Long
Good email etiquette requires a fine balance: you don’t want it too short, but you don’t want it too long. Lengthy emails lose the reader and create frustration. On the flip side of that coin, overtly short or blunt emails can also be taken negatively – especially one-word responses like “yes” and “OK.” Refer to point 4 to cut back appropriately as needed. On the other hand, take a second to add a greeting and a sign-off, even if the email only requires a brief response.
6. Save it for Later and Re-Read
When in doubt, write your email, save it in your drafts, and re-read it again later. In the flurry of email answering, it’s easy to blast out a message that might be misinterpreted. So, if you feel there’s any chance you might be writing one that could be taken the wrong way, give it some room to breathe. Looking at with a refreshed mindset might help you eliminate possible misunderstanding.
7. Consider If It Would Be Better as a Phone Call
It’s important to remember that email is not the end-all, be-all. Do not neglect other valuable forms of communication. Sometimes, you just need to know when things are better off as a phone call. It’s easy to get caught up in an extended email exchange, but understanding emails are a main point of confusion and resentment amongst professionals, it’s important to embrace that some problems can often be solved much more quickly with a brief phone call. If you’re having a misunderstanding and it has lasted more than three emails, pick up the phone.
While email is a common point of misinterpretation, 92% of people still value it as a communication tool. So, take your time, examine your email with a skeptical eye, and make sure you’re avoiding these common email issues. Your recipients will appreciate it.