I got your email. Now I KNOW you are mad at me.
Tony is a detail man. One day he sent precise instructions to his boss by email on what to expect when at a fundraiser. He gave her the schedule, dress code, even the menu, and then asked if she was okay with the plans.
Plus her auto signature.
Tony wrestled for a week wondering why she was mad at him. He concluded that he was about to be fired. Then he ducked every time he saw her coming. By the time the event took place, he was a mess. His boss’s response was, “Huh?”
An email tone test for you:
So I ask you, did Tony’s boss mean:
Fine. (That is wonderful, Tony. You’re getting a raise), or
Fine. (This is way too much detail for me to read right now), or
Fine. (Go away, and please don’t ever come near me again).
You only have to practice saying “fine” using five different tones of voice to understand the problem. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Now you can see why it doesn’t work on a computer screen. You don’t see the body language, and you definitely don’t hear the tone. Without non-verbal clues, our imaginations fill in the blanks (some more than others). And it is the emotional tone that we remember, not the content.
The problem is made worse by the fact that most of us don’t realize that we’re at fault. In a 2005 study published by the American Psychological Association, people vastly overestimate how often the recipients of their messages received the intended tone. Senders estimated nearly 80 percent accuracy. In reality, recipients sensed the right tone only 56 percent of the time.
So how do you manage email tone? One solution is software that acts as a Tone Checker. It actually promises to review your email and give it a tone rating. But because productivity Ninjas pride themselves on being human, not superheroes, let’s stay with a human solution.
Tips to manage email tone
Email tone is conveyed through word choice, syntax, punctuation, letter case, sentence length, opening and closing, along with graphics like emoticons and emoji’s. It’s also set by using some common sense:
Assess the relationship. If you know someone very well, you can relax and expect that even if you convey the wrong tone, they’ll understand. But use this approach cautiously, even with relatives!
Be a bit old fashioned. Email is communication, which means it is about relationships. Use email to build and manage a relationship, not just to give instructions or information. Consider starting with a quick, “how are you”, “hope you had a nice weekend,” and if appropriate, include “thank you” or “great to have you working on this”.
Be your own tone checker: If you think there is any chance of misinterpretation, take your time, save the email as a draft, re-read, and have someone else review it. And if you are still unsure, PICK UP THE PHONE (oh, and never, ever use caps like this — it is universally viewed as shouting.)
Don’t get fancy with the emoji’s. Apple and Google have different emoji fonts, leading to a whole other area of misinterpretation. A smiley face can appear as a grumpy face when sent from one phone to another (and if you can’t trust a smiley face, what can you trust?)
Just be honest. If you feel that the email is awkward (like any conversation can be), just say, “Not sure I’m expressing this well in this email, let’s talk/have coffee….”.
Keep calm and carry on
Resist the urge to interpret tone. I lost a few night’s sleep recently because a client returned a manuscript with an email, “still a lot of work to do here.” After having a major writer’s meltdown (and a nice bottle of wine), I finally realized he was referring to a previous email where he told me his plans to build a deck that weekend. Oops….
Lesson learned: like any human relationship, you can lose valuable time, energy and productivity looking for problems where none exist. Watch your email tone, and give others a break on theirs. Productivity Ninjas are only human. 🙂
By Beth Parker
Beth Parker is a Canadian author and ghostwriter engaged in a continual struggle to balance the needs of her business with the welcomed chaos of five children, a husband and various pets. She has a BA (English), University of Toronto, and an MA (Journalism). In her fictional spare time, she paints pictures.