Here’s Why No One Gets Your Sarcastic Emails

We send hundreds of emails a week, but if you stop and think before you hit send, you might realize that your missives annoy more than they inform. Here’s how to get the tricky balance of tone right.

Here’s Why No One Gets Your Sarcastic Emails
[Image: Flickr user gacabo]

Before you hit send on that email you just drafted, consider this first: you are probably not coming off as witty or sarcastic as you think you are.


Studies from almost a decade ago have proven that without the body language cues that exist in face-to-face communication, emails are not as effective at conveying tone and emotion.

Psychologist and NYU professor Justin Kruger and his team from the universities of Chicago and Illinois found that email miscommunications occur more frequently than you’d think mainly because we overestimate both how well we can convey our tone via email and how well we can interpret others’ tones in the same medium.

Studies showed that while participants thought that their sarcasm would be communicated 80% of the time over email, in fact it was only communicated a little more than half the time.

These findings, while nothing new, just go to show how important our communication style is when it comes to email. While you may mean one thing, the impression you are making is a whole other matter.

This isn’t to say, though, that you can’t effectively convey tone through email, which is why you need to take note of your emotions while composing your notes to others.

The Tone You Don’t Know You’re Setting

Social and emotional intelligence expert David F. Swink writes in Psychology Today that writers may convey tone through a number of devices like word choice, syntax, punctuation, and sentence length. How you use these devices can get even get you a bad rep.


Swink believes people often remember the tone you set more than the content. In fact, researchers from Keele University found in 2002 that we react to emails almost as quickly as we would a phone call, and the impression it leaves on readers lasts more than a minute after the interruption.

In order to avoid any miscommunication, then, it makes sense to take the most direct and concise route, right?

Yes and no.

The Case For the Niceties

While people will most often prefer that you get to the point, we are still human, and a little civility will go a long way. Without an email greeting and closing, readers may interpret your email as insulting and brusque.

As Joan Waldvogel, an analyst at the Ministry of Social Development in Wellington, writes in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication in 2007:

The absence or presence of a greeting and the type of greeting set the tone for the email conversation that follows. The greeting is one means by which the writer constructs his or her professional identity and relationship with the addressee(s) . . . Whatever approach is used to start or end the communication, important social information is conveyed by the choice.

Just make sure that when you do sign off, you don’t overdo it.


Canned Responses Aren’t Always A Killer

So what about canned responses? Sure, this takes even more human interaction out of the email process, but it can damn well save you a ton of time. And if you do it the right way, it doesn’t have to be as impersonal as you might think.

Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes uses canned responses in his own day-to-day communications because, let’s face it, being a CEO is a pretty time-consuming job. Saving 30 minutes a day on not reinventing the email wheel can be a huge boon, and a lot of the time you’re still able to provide the same information your correspondents are looking for from you with a pre-written answer to common questions.

And as mentioned above, adding a personal greeting and closing will add a little bit more of a personal touch.

One last suggestion that may seem like common sense but that tons of people ignore on a daily basis:

  • Read over your email one last time before you send it out.
  • Keep an eye out for the obvious things like spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes.
  • Make sure you use the right person’s name and spell it correctly.
  • Break up the email into short paragraphs so it’s easier to read.
  • For the love of God, please don’t reply all.

About the author

Rachel Gillett is a former editorial assistant for’s Leadership section. Her work has been featured on,, and elsewhere