We write all the time. We text friends, we email colleagues, we post on social media—we even draft articles (like I am right now). And when we’re writing, the audience can’t see our face, hear our voice, or note our body language. Our words alone have to communicate our meaning to someone else.
Even if it’s someone you know, there’s always a chance that what you’ve written could be interpreted in a wildly different way than you intended. This might happen for any number of reasons. The person could be in a different time zone, have a different understanding of phrases and idioms, or just be in a different mood than you. Whatever the case, it’s no simple thing to make sure your tone is fully conveyed and understood. So what can we do?
Why tone is so important at work
We interact constantly via written channels—email, workplace messaging platforms, text, and more—and we’re often under pressure to respond as soon as possible. Maybe we only have the chance to skim quickly before needing to shoot back a reply. But once you’ve sent that writing into the world, it’s almost impossible to take back.
Nearly everyone has had the experience of reading back through a message or email to see if they wrote something in the manner they meant it. The wrong tone—sounding curt when you meant to be efficient, or sounding passive-aggressive when you meant to be polite—can cost relationships and harm collaborative efforts. In a fast-paced work environment, these issues can easily compound.
I interact with a lot of colleagues across several offices around the world, which means I need to communicate digitally, via written form, all the time. Yet I have firsthand experience of the trickiness of conveying the right tone as a non-native English speaker.
I was raised in Ukraine, where we have a starkly different style of communication than in the U.S. Ukraine is what anthropologists sometimes refer to as a high-context culture, in which meaning is often implicit and unexpressed. Sharing feelings and emotions in written form is not common. This is particularly true for business writing in Ukraine, which is very formal and formulaic.
When you learn English as a second language, you often take classes that don’t focus much on differentiating formal from informal, casual speech—they teach language with formal rules. As a result, you end up sounding overly formal in emails, which immediately gives you away as a non-native English speaker. These two factors have made it difficult when working in low-context cultures such as Canada or the U.S. to give the right impression.
My natural way to communicate over email is to respond in one or two sentences, which can come across as curt or lacking empathy without that being my intention. So I’ve made a dedicated effort to make sure I invoke the right tone, whether I’m providing constructive feedback, working through a difficult decision, or showing appreciation for a job well done. I look at my emails and think: Does this say what I need it to say in the way I want someone to take it?
When and where to target a specific tone in your writing
One of the hardest parts of striking the right tone is that it changes from task to task, person to person, context to context. You wouldn’t approach writing a letter to a new client quite the same way you would a company blog post. Different channels also require different tones. Slack or Facebook Messenger is usually different than email. Now that the “workplace” goes with us on our laptops, tablets, and smartphones, we often find ourselves needing to switch back and forth between an informal tone and a professional manner on the fly.
As a cofounder and product manager who often communicates to colleagues far away, I need to adjust my tone frequently, either dialing up or down the formality and amount of information in my messages. If I’m writing to a group I know well and work closely with, I can adopt a more informal tone. But if I’m writing to a group who I may not interact with as much, I’ll need to adopt a more formal tone that can communicate the context and importance of the task at hand.
One way I like to use Slack is to be playful and—hopefully—funny when posting to our central announcements channel. Our company has a distributed and culturally diverse team, with people in various time zones, and so everyone will not likely read the message at once. I try to make sure I’m being informal but also informative, as I may not be online when questions arise. And I try to be empathetic by mentioning anyone who deserves credit for anything I’m sharing.
My visibility level at the company is high, which makes it even more important for me to watch my tone—what I say can affect people in ways I don’t intend. Not too long ago, one of our engineering teams launched a new feature in beta. I was very excited about it and started testing it right away. During testing, I found a bug, which I immediately shared with the team. But in the process of writing the bug report, I neglected to show my appreciation to the team for the incredible effort they put into launching the feature. I just jumped straight to reporting a bug. That was a mistake.
I have since then made it a rule for myself to always thank someone for their work before I dive in to offer feedback. I think sometimes about a line that people attribute to Winston Churchill: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” I try to remain mindful about how I “give” in emails. I say thank you whenever I can.
How to inject personality and humor into your writing
Things are not always so serious. Workplace communication has room for fun too. With the number of communication channels available to us today, there is plenty of room to infuse personality into your writing. If you’re not someone who uses exclamation points all the time, you might try conveying genuine enthusiasm about something amazing by including not just one but two or three (or four or five or six)!
Humor can also help a lot. Even when you’re communicating something very important, adding humor to your writing can put someone at ease and make them feel more comfortable approaching or processing the information. Humor imbues much—if not most—of our communication, both internal and external. We try to make sure the writing we put into the world showcases the way we communicate internally—playful rather than solemn, inventive rather than prosaic, energizing rather than clichéd.
Even if you don’t feel comfortable loosening up the tone of your professional writing, you might consider using images sometimes. In my opinion, GIFs are most appropriate in very informal and humorous contexts, such as Slack channels with close colleagues who you joke around with in person. Emojis, on the other hand, are so deeply woven into the fabric of modern written communication that I can’t really think of a place where they wouldn’t be appropriate. Unlike GIFs, which are often intended as humorous, emojis help convey a range of emotions, including those that may be hard to describe with words.
Knowing when to switch tones from silly to serious and back again is not always simple. And appropriate tone likely changes between job functions. Introducing and onboarding a new employee requires a vastly different approach than a sales team creating a pitch deck. To help people know how and when to adapt, it may be helpful for an organization to set tone guidelines for specific written communication scenarios.
Putting your spin on things without compromising meaning or inclusivity
Language is beautiful and complex, and we have limitless ways to convey our meaning. Even making particular choices about punctuation can help you say what you mean how you mean it. Think about those texts you’ve gotten that have included periods where an exclamation point would have put you more at ease. I am personally very fond of using an em dash or double hyphen instead of a comma when addressing someone in an email (e.g., Max– or Max—). I almost certainly overuse em dashes and hyphens—I like how they allow you to add more context to a sentence. See what I did there? 🙂
It’s always important to remember that exercising creativity and style still should include the use of inclusive language, which is a way to demonstrate respect, understanding, and appreciation for whoever you’re communicating with, in and out of the workplace. Using preferred pronouns when speaking to groups or individual coworkers is a best practice. It’s especially important for managers and senior-level executives who hold visible leadership positions and should model empathetic communication.
Alex Shevchenko is the cofounder of Grammarly.