5 Ways To Avoid A Massive Email Misunderstanding

Emotions are hard to convey with text, but if you understand how you’re likely to be misunderstood, you can try to minimize the problem.


When you meet face to face, you can read a person’s emotions. Even with a phone call, someone’s tone of voice can convey a lot of information. But with email, you’re flying blind, which is why it’s easy to be misconstrued. We’ve written before about how hard it is for other people to detect emotions in email. In one study, test participants emailed 10 statements to recipients, some serious, some sarcastic. The senders thought recipients would identify the correct emotion most of the time, but in fact, the recipients didn’t do much better than randomly guessing.


So how can you be sure you convey the correct emotions in your emails? “Ultimately, it’s a short answer. You can’t,” says Dmitri Leonov, vice president for growth at email management system SaneBox. However, if you understand how you’re likely to be misunderstood, you can take these steps to minimize the problem.

1. Consider What Would Be Better As A Phone Call

Email is good for straightforward information sharing, or asking close-ended questions. “If the email ends with, ‘Thoughts?’ that’s a sign it’s not meant to be an email,” says Leonov. Pick up the phone instead. Likewise, if you’re feeling particularly emotional, you will also want to call, Skype, or meet face to face.

If you need to respond to something immediately, and communication where you see and hear the person isn’t possible, send a note saying you’ve received the message and want to discuss the topic as soon as possible via a different medium. With asynchronous communication, so-called “cyber disinhibition” comes into play. You don’t have to manage the fallout, so it’s easy to say things you wouldn’t say in person. Things you wouldn’t say to someone’s face are generally things better left unsaid.


2. Understand That Emails Default To A Negative Tone

Absent the nods and smiles you get while talking in person, the default tone of neutral emails is actually negative. John Merline, a senior writer at Investor’s Business Daily, says he didn’t realize this until “I’d received emails from people that seemed unbelievably harsh–and the people aren’t that way.” Now, “I try to always start with some sort of pleasantry,” he says. “I think you can pretty much say whatever you want after that.” Even the worst meetings seldom start with yelling. The aggrieved party walks in and says, Hey, we need to talk about this. You can do the same with an email. Write it, then go back in and put, “I hope you had a good weekend” or somesuch as the first sentence.

3. Use The Right Amount Of Words

Parents try to calm young screaming children down with the phrase, “Use your words,” and that goes for emails too, says David Swink, chief creative officer of Strategic Interactions. “We don’t want to make emails longer, we’re already overwhelmed with them,” he says, and if you’ve got a long history with someone, it’s okay to just respond, “Okay.” But using a bit of word craft for those you know less well really helps. “Yes, I would be happy to do that” manages the relationship better than “yeah.” The recipient knows you’re happy because you said so. Likewise, you can say that you are frustrated, concerned, or confused–though all these emotions are hard to resolve over email (another reason to pick up the phone).

4. Highlight The Point

You already know using all capital letters comes across as screaming. But how else can you call attention to something, particularly in an email of more than two sentences? “Bold the takeaway, the required action,” says Leonov of SaneBox. It’s a non-jarring visual way to direct someone’s focus.

5. Use Emoticons And Emoji With Great Care

In theory, using text versions or picture icons of expressions can help give your email the proper tone. You’re not there smiling in person, but you can put a smile in an email to show the same thing. The thinking on this is evolving from not-business-appropriate to inevitable. “I’m actually a big fan of the simple smiley face, or even a winky face,” says Leonov. “Don’t put it everywhere,” but “it’s a nice way to soften something that could be construed as negative.” Just be aware that not all email programs or devices will read a non-text character correctly, so if it’s really critical, words are still the way to go.

Related: 2 Useless Phrases You Need To Eliminate From Your Emails


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at