News Flash: Your Emails Are Offending Everybody

We miscommunicate plenty when we're talking face to face. And on the faceless Internet, it only gets worse. Here are 3 guidelines to help you out.

If you've ever found yourself pacing around your room trying to decide whether to end a text message with an exclamation point or a period (or maybe no punctuation—edgy!), then you are intimately familiar with the scarcity of signaling in virtual communications.

As Keith Ferrazzi writes for HBR, we feel even more clueless about communication online than in person because of the paucity of contextual information available. Take work, for example: If you are having an all-hands meeting, hiearchy will be represented by the way people order themselves (CEO in the center, interns on the roof). These signals are not available during a conference call—which is probably why you hardly ever hear the folks lurking via phone pop in with a question.

So, Ferrazzi says, we need to supply some signal. He tells us how:

Speak the same language: Even if you are all culturally identical (most firms replicate themselves, after all), there will still be a modicum of diversity in your language patterns. Ferrazzi says that being down with your Myers-Briggs types can help us learn each other's languages. Another option is to try to meet people to person and just listen to them, and use that context later in written missives.

Give 'em more signs: "Nothing is ever obvious," Heidi Grant Halvorson wrote for Fast Company, "unless you made it obvious." To that end, spell things out: Instead of leaning on generalities like "circle back to me," actually provide precise instructions of the next step.

Respond quickly: Even if only to say that you'll reply later, shoot a note over now. Ferrazzi says that since we have little clues for context—aside from that timestamp—waiting a long time to reply can make people feel like you don't value your relationship with them, which sucks. So be prompt.

And getting your emails read? That's a whole other inbox.

How to Avoid Virtual Miscommunication

[Image: Flickr user Sharada Prasad]

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  • aimee w

    "being down with your Myers-Briggs types can help us learn each other's languages"

    But, but...

    a) What, do you just ask someone what their M-B status is? (Most people won't know, of course, and it also changes). And we're supposed to all memorise M-B types?
    b) M-B is actually really inaccurate in a bunch of ways, and while it's a way to categorise people, I don't know that it would help with email language.

    I propose the following instead:

    a) Have the decency and respect to write WELL. Watch your spelling, punctuation and syntax. Communicate clearly. Remember, you're asking for someone's time and brainspace.
    b) Be brief (avoid lengthy sentences and repetition!), but not too brief - it can come across as rude. If you're going to be very brief, then include a note in your signature explaining why (for example, "Too
    brief? Here’s why:")
    c) USE EMOTICONS. I know the business world thinks that's appalling, but they're not the arbiters of good communication. If used properly (i.e. sparingly, and appropriately in context), emoticons allow you to signal your intent.
    d) Be kind. If someone's being pissy, don't answer in kind. It's probably not nothing to do with you, so don't make it worse. If it _does_, apologise and see what you can do to improve the situation. As part of this, be sensitive to whether or not, for example, it's someone's first language, and respond accordingly (be clearer, more patient)...
    e) You can tell context from an email as much as you can from spoken language. Just pay attention. And keep in mind a) to d) above :)

    Basically: it's all rule no. 1. Don't be a dick :P

  • Paul H. Burton

    E-mails are largely a horrible way to communicate. This is not because the tool - e-mail - is bad. It's because the people using the tool are bad at using it. I often visualize more e-mail writers are elderly women peering precariously over the wheel of a large Buick. It's an accident waiting to happen.

    While catching up on my reading last night, I read an article titled "Cutting the Clutter" by Elizabeth Ruiz for the Oregon State Bar Bulletin. (I was an attorney before changing careers and becoming a time management speaker.). I highly commend it to anyone looking to improve the way they communicate through the power channel of e-mail. It's available at: