September 8, 2020
We have all been there, the vague email, the bold wording, the unnecessary use of caps lock. What does it all mean, or does it mean nothing it all?
Allow me to introduce you to two of electronic communication’s biggest problems: confusion and assumption. It’s what happens when an email or a text can roll along just fine until someone accidentally or purposefully uses an exclamation point instead of a question mark. This simple email blunder could trigger anxiety, gnawing bitterness and a sea of reply-alls.
While difficult to control once the snowball starts rolling, it’s easy to see how email tone and style can wreak havoc and distract your reader from the intended message. Thoughtful written communication is always important, especially in these pandemic times we are all living in. Many employees are still working from home, frustrations are high, the world’s future hangs in the balance, children dangle from the chandelier, all the while emails are coming and going at breakneck speed.
It’s a tough world, and sometimes sanity and the true intention of a message can get lost in one quick swoosh of a tone deaf email, according to Dr. David Rusbasan, an industrial organizational psychology expert.
“Email communication and the potential errors that can come with it have increased over the last 10 years. The pandemic is helping accelerate that amount,” Rusbasan said.
Increase in traffic and varying personalities all come into play when discussing the impact of tone in email and text messages.
“There tends to be a variation between email senders and receivers to whether emotion should or should not be included in professional emails,” says Rusbasan. “This variability will surely lead to confusion in receiving or understanding emotional tone that is either included or excluded in an email depending on the person.”
In all of this back and forth communication, something gets lost in translation. What email provides in efficiency, it lacks in transparency. There is power in that supportive head nod you see in meetings or the encouraging smile you notice from your teammates in the break room. Email with or without emojis cannot provide non-verbal cues, and that is where the miscommunication can run amok.
“It has been assumed that email would increase and deepen communication between people,” said Rusbasan. “But what we may have really done is traded in an effective form of communication, face-to-face, for another and less effective one in email and chat.”
So before hitting “send” on that potentially misinterpreted next email, Rusbasan recommends a few thoughtful steps that may save you some time and a boatload of Advil.
Acknowledge the feelings: “First, understand that any emotions — negative, neutral, positive — ... are conveyed in email,” cautions Rusbasan. Realize that your subtle hint, or your atta boy will be felt and processed by your reader. Before hitting send, think about whether your message is better suited for a phone call or a Zoom chat. If you still find the message is email worthy, take a little extra time to choose your words thoughtfully and with care.
Realize you are not Hemmingway: We may all think we are the best thing to happen to email since AOL, but we are human. We make mistakes. “We all need to recognize we might not be as great of an email communicator as we think we are,” advised Rusbasan. Open yourself up to the possibility and the professional development opportunity to not only evaluate your email communication but improve them. Communication is a skill and oftentimes it needs some practice.
Don’t be the Debbie Downer: While it may feel easier to be critical or detailed in email, the reader may find your message harder to process. “Be cautious with negative wording,” cautioned Rusbasan. “The hint of negativity, especially if unintended, will be received more strongly in email communication than when compared to a face-to-face conversation with additional cues.” To repurpose an old adage, “If you can’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it an email” applies here.
Sending emails may be simple, but the aftermath of an ill written one might be more complex during a global pandemic. Read the room, offer up some grace, and perhaps consider these steps before hitting send.
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