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6 ways to avoid sounding insensitive in emails during the COVID-19 crisis

More than ever there’s a need to make sure our written communication has a warm, genuine tone.

6 ways to avoid sounding insensitive in emails during the COVID-19 crisis
[Images: William Iven/Unsplash; Yevhenii Dorofieiev/iStock]
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Even in the best of times, business emails and other written communication can seem impersonal. Unconsciously, we often adopt a more formal tone in writing compared to when we’re speaking face-to-face.

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With the coronavirus upon us, these are hardly the best of times. More than ever there’s a need to make sure our written communication has a warm, caring tone. That’s no easy task. It’s all too easy in your business correspondence to strike false notes and come across as insincere, or even uncaring.

Showing warmth requires extreme sensitivity. Here are six ways to make sure your business correspondence hits the right mark:

1. Offer good wishes

Since virtually everyone you’re writing to is affected in some way by the coronavirus, it’s important to offer well wishes. You can do this by opening your email with something simple like, “I hope you and your family are well.”

You can also offer good wishes in the body of your email. If your company has provided some gift to a client, for example, a free webinar or an online training session, you might say, “We hope that this small gesture supports you during this time.” Well wishes can also be an excellent way of closing your email. One or two expressions of warmth in your email will create a strong, personal connection.

2. Prune stock expressions

Because expressing warmth in business correspondence is challenging, we may rely too often on phrases that sound stilted or insincere. To avoid this, cut out impersonal platitudes, stock expressions, and trite assurances.

I receive many emails from PR firms that would like me to interview their clients for Fast Company articles. Some of these requests begin with a cold, hard fact. For example, one first line read: “Research shows that a virtual workforce requires stronger leadership skills than ever before.” Such an opening does not inspire me to read on. The same is true for openings like “It has come to my attention,” or “I am writing because . . .”

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Avoid business-speak phrases like “We value our customers” or overused expressions like “We’re all in this together,” “We’ll get through this,” or “Hang in there, better days are coming.” They illustrate only your inability to express genuine feelings.

3. Express gratitude

A third way to show that you care is to introduce gratitude into your correspondence. If a long-standing client delays a payment or asks for an understanding on a contract, remember that keeping the relationship strong is the key. Before entering into any negotiation, express support for the loyalty they’ve shown over the years.

Even simple statements of gratitude, like “I appreciate your getting back to me,” are important in showing that you care.

4. Accentuate the positive 

Negative statements are never a good idea in business communication, and that holds doubly true in these times when you want to be upbeat. If you’re applying for a job, don’t write “I’m not sure you’re hiring now, but I thought I’d write anyway.”

Prune from your prose words that make you sound weak or uncertain, for example: ‘I’m afraid,” “I can’t,” or “I’m not sure,” or “I don’t know.” Stay on positive turf. This will elevate the spirits of the person to whom you are writing.

But in being positive, be sensitive to the reality we face. Telling a colleague “Have a great weekend!” or “Enjoy sheltering in place,” may sound facetious. Even an expression like “Happy Monday!” can grate. 

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5. Tread lightly if you don’t know the recipient 

If you’re writing to a business acquaintance, you might tell her, “I know how challenging working in a house full of kids can be.” Or you might say, “I’m impressed by the grit you’re showing in this situation.”

But if you don’t really know the person, such expressions can sound insincere. A recent email to me from someone I didn’t know, begins: “We know that you, too, care about psychological safety.” One from another stranger states: “Thinking about you and wondering how you’re doing.” Still another writer with whom I had no relationship ended her email with an “air hug.”

These expressions of empathy backfire because they are written to a list of recipients and therefore come across as insincere. If you are going to show empathy, be sure it is to someone you know and care about.

6. Don’t preach

Be cautious of overdoing things in an effort to share wisdom and goodwill. If you were to say to someone who’s a bit overwhelmed, “You are not a bad person for feeling stretched,” it might come across as preaching. The same would be true if you said to a disgruntled employee, “This experience will strengthen you.”

Your heart may be in the right place, but we don’t have the right to be the arbiter of another person’s feelings. Listen to them, yes, but don’t tell them how they should feel.