It's All About Nuance. How to Convey and Discern Email Tone.
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Everyone has been there. You’re emailing back and forth with someone at work and then all of a sudden, a sentence gives you pause. You think, Wait a second. Is she mad at me?
You reread it. Five minutes go by and you still can’t tell if you somehow offended this person or are completely missing a joke. Eventually, you just craft a vague response and hope for the best.
Tone can be hard to discern and convey over email and any other digital communication. In fact, a 2005 study, amusingly titled “Egocentrism over e-mail,” found that people vastly overestimate how often the recipient of a message will correctly identify their intended tone, whether serious or sarcastic. Senders estimated nearly 80 percent accuracy. In reality, recipients sensed the right tone only 56 percent of the time.
Misunderstood tone usually just results in some mild awkwardness. But at worst, it can damage a professional relationship. Due to the nature of email, you’re bound to encounter social gaffes every so often. But here are steps you can take to minimize missed connections:
1. Figure out the style.
Take stock of a conversation’s context before settling on wording. Consider a person's communication style in past and current exchanges. Maybe this individual tends to write short, to-the-point emails with no salutation.
Perhaps she loves sprinkling messages with exclamation marks and smiley faces. Or maybe the person is an iPhone emailer with no qualms about stray typos.
Whatever the correspondent's style, taking note of it can guide your approach in a response. Granted, the subject of discussion will also play a huge role in determining meaning and tone. But use common sense and be cognizant of the varied writing styles of different individuals to avoid misunderstandings.
2. Less is more.
When you have to explain a difficult issue via email, an unclear tone can lead to awkwardness and hurt feelings. According to research at Syracuse University, people are likely to misinterpret emails in two ways: as neutral or negative. Without in-person emotional cues to engage them, people interpret positive emails as dull and assume the worst when unsure. That’s why it’s best to follow one main rule: Keep things simple.
Unless you’re extremely close to the recipient, sarcasm and joking are likely to confuse people. And when discussing a delicate topic, misunderstood sarcasm can do a huge amount of damage. Play it safe and be straightforward. If you still feel like you need to lighten the mood, pick up the phone.
3. Still confused? Just ask.
No matter how clear your counterpart in the conversation strives to be, sometimes confusion ensues. When you’re really stumped and don’t want things to become more tangled, it’s perfectly fine to come right out and ask, “Sorry, I think we may have misunderstood each other. Did I say something that offended you?” or “Sorry, I think my message may have been confusing. What I meant was…”
It’s better to bring a mixup into the open so as to be able to then return to the topic at hand instead of letting a small misunderstanding spiral into something bigger. Undergoing a moment of awkwardness to clear things up is much better than people holding on to hurt feelings and letting them stew.
4. The healing power of in-person exchanges.
Finally, don’t forget about the power of face time. Scheduling in-person meetings every so often is a great way to build better relationships with those you work with. Meeting in person can also do wonders for future digital communications.
When you can see how someone communicates in person, you can pick up on cues. You might notice that an individual tends to joke around during meetings. Or you might see a person move quickly from topic to topic. (In an email exchange, this can come across as curt or dismissive.) You’ll be able to use that information later to discern tone in that person's email.
Ultimately, you’re bound to have some awkward interactions vie email. But if you learn to take note of others’ communication styles, keep digital messages simple and make time for in-person interactions every so often, you’ll find it easier to convey and decipher tone in today’s digitally driven work world.
Related: 7 Ways to Detox Your Inbox