People Are Always Misinterpreting My Emails. What Am I Doing Wrong?
Let's assume you're not stupid or a jerk or weird--that you're not misspelling every other word or ending every thought with "OK???!!!!" or citing Hopi Indian blessings in their original tongue. Let's assume instead that you are either brusque or long-winded.
If you're long-winded, then maybe you shouldn't type so much. If you're brusque, then God bless you. Don't change anything. Despite any evidence to the contrary in these columns, we're fervently pro-brusque. As far as we're concerned, brusqueness is a key part of the engine of commerce.
"Yeah, this is Steve over at Steve's. I need 10 more pounds of Steve Sauce immediately." "You got it, Steve." Brusque. Beautiful. The less said, the less to be misinterpreted.
A Few Words on Brusqueness
The best e-mail replies involve one word: "Yes." Can you do lunch today? "Yes." At 1:30? "Yes." Chinese place? "Yes." This kind of e-mail chain reads like the last paragraph of James Joyce's Ulysses, but that's OK--it's a great book. Anyway, the best thing about "Yes" is that it prevents a comeback. When you say "Yes" you eliminate so much back and forth. Which is efficient. The risk, of course, is that you hurt people's feelings. But that's a risk worth taking. When it comes to e-mailing--especially when it comes to business--feelings are overrated.
Turns out there's a movement afoot. Chris Anderson, curator of the groundbreaking and influential TED Conferences, drew up a document a few months back. He calls it "The Email Charter: 10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral." The document's main concern is basic consideration for others' time, so there are rules like "Celebrate clarity," "Slash surplus CC's," etc. But the best one is this: "Short or slow is not rude." The idea is: We should stop taking things so personally. Relax. If the e-mail response is curt or if it takes a long time coming, relax.
"We need to assume everyone has an over-brimming inbox and a life they want to get on with," Anderson told us while actually speaking on a telephone. "It's just e-mail."
A Philosophy of E-mailing
We'd like to propose an e-mailing approach that amounts to a single question: "What Would Robert De Niro Type?" Here's how it works: You get an e-mail. You read that e-mail. You respond to the e-mail as if you were Robert De Niro. You will find that your e-mail responses will involve messages like "Sure" and "Great" and "Yes" and "No" and "Perfect" and "Come on" and "Sorry." Warning: Do not confuse the man with the characters he has played. Otherwise you might find yourself typing things like "Sit there. Don't move. Let it bleed."*
You will also find that you might actually get on the phone with someone if the response requires too much typing. Bobby De Niro is not going to sit there and type a long e-mail. He's going to pick up a phone and figure it all out. Or, if the person you're e-mailing is in the office, you might find that you actually get up from your desk and go talk to that person face to face. Which is the best kind of communication as far as we're concerned.
A guy who's thought about this stuff a lot more than we have backs us up: "Just because you receive an e-mail doesn't mean you need to reply by e-mail," says Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home. "If you're getting confused or angry, then schedule a meeting, pick up the phone, visit the person, write a letter, do anything other than send an e-mail. A lot of times the answer is: Don't send an e-mail."
And here's the best part: People may start e-mailing you as if you are the iconic American actor. Which means you won't have to suffer through so many pointless introductory thoughts like "I hope you had an awesome weekend." You might not have to be confronted with so many exclamation points at the end of every sentence. You might not receive a 500-word e-mail that ends with the worst question of all time: "Thoughts?"
Because you are Robert damn De Niro, and people will learn to e-mail you accordingly--with a sense of efficiency and purpose. (And possibly fear. But mostly efficiency and purpose.)
The Power of Small Messages of Sincerity and Hope
There's a guy at the magazine who frequently ends his e-mails with the words "It's gonna be great." We have no idea whether or not he believes what he's saying. He might believe the opposite of what he's saying. Maybe he's being sarcastic. But it doesn't matter. That message of hope and confidence is heartening. The ironic thing, considering the point of this article, is that this kind of message isn't efficient at all. It's a little bonus. It's extra. But the best thing about making your e-mailing brusque is that when you do step out and say something not entirely germane to the subject, your message will get attention.
Take "Thank you," for instance. There are many ways to say thank you over e-mail. "Thanks," you could say. Or "TY." Or "Thx." There is also: "Thank you." In almost any other context, "Thank you" isn't noteworthy. But you don't see it so much in e-mails, typed out like that. Which makes it a powerful message. It's simple, direct, meaningful, gracious. It almost seems extravagant. Which makes it memorable. And impossible to misinterpret.
Key Technical Matters
1. Ask yourself if you would CC yourself. Easy with the CC.
2. BCC says more about you than the person you're BCC'ing.
3. BC: One of the all-time great comic strips.
4. Not only should you assume that every e-mail you send will get forwarded to someone else, you should assume that every e-mail you send will someday be read aloud in a court of law. Discretion.
5. If your message is less than seven words, put it in the subject line.
6. An e-mail signature should not involve words of wisdom. Not Aristotle. Not Gandhi. Not Hayley Williams of the chart-topping rock band Paramore.
7. Unless someone's in grave danger, no exclamation points.
8. Related: Grave danger is best addressed via a medium other than e-mail.
9. ALL CAPS. No.
10. small caps. No.
11. wHaTeVeR YoU cAlL tHiS. Absolutely not.
12. When in need of a font that's a little bit fun, a little bit earnest: look to Helvetica.
13. Verdana? Please.
New Exclamation Point Guidelines
Proposed new meanings for the most abused punctuation mark
|Currently accepted meaning:||Proposed meaning:|
|!||Mild enthusiasm, possibly feigned.||This is so exciting.|
|!!||Legitimate mild enthusiasm.||This is revolutionary.|
|!!!||Moderate enthusiasm.||I am literally about to pass out from excitement.|
|!!!!||Considerable enthusiasm.||I'm serious. I'm literally passing out right now.|
|!!!!!||"Maybe by typing so many exclamation points I can convince myself that such excitement is actually warranted."||Seriously, I'm in bad shape here. Call 911.|
|!!!!!!||"What the hell--I'm just going to throw in some more exclamation points."||No, wait. I'm feeling better. But seriously, this is really exciting.|
*From Heat. Great movie.