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Don’t Type At Me Like That! Email and Emotions

Adapted from Psychology Today – David F. Swink

Email, especially in the workplace, has become the default mode of communication for many people as it’s quick and efficient.

However, emails and texts eliminates the most valuable information of any conversation. In face-to-face communication, we rely heavily on non-verbal information like facial expression, body posture, gestures, and voice tone to interpret and predict other people’s behavior.

Without these important non-verbal cues, our imaginations fill in the blanks of what the person sending the message intended, and their feelings about the communication. Rarely do we fill in the blanks with positive thoughts. This can lead to misunderstandings, damaged relationships and poor business decisions.

Given that many of us must communicate via email and text, we need to be aware that emails can have a “tone”. People will remember the emotional tone of an email more vividly and longer than the content.

Email tone is conveyed through a variety of ways: word choice, grammar, punctuation, letter case, sentence length, opening, closing, and other graphic indicators like emoticons or emoji.

Example: Just because you write in a certain way doesn’t mean it will be received in the same way.

In a conversation, there is a physical environment as well as a psychological environment.

When you are in the same physical space you are likely experiencing the same environment. However, you can share the same physical space with a person and be in very different psychological situations.

Your life may be fairly stress-free at the moment, while the person with whom you are communicating may be operating with tight deadlines and a host of personal problems When you are together, you are move likely to recognize and respond to the psychological feelings of the person as compared to when you can’t see or hear them.

Compose your email recognizing that the receiver may not be in the same mood or emotional state as you. Try to imagine how the person receiving the email could interpret it.

Example:  When we read an email, we attempt to read intention and tone into the words.

If the message is ambiguous, many people will automatically read the most negative emotions and intentions into it.

Have you ever made inferences about a person not responding to an email you sent them? Is your first thought that the person doesn’t thing your message is important, or they are trying to avoid the issue in the email?

Check out the possible email tone interpretations in the following messages:

  1. If you don’t get that to me by 1:00 p.m. today, we’re going to miss our deadline.

Tone interpretation – Hey dummy, we’re going to miss our deadline and it’s your fault.

What could have been written – Today’s 1:00 p.m. deadline is particularly critical. It’s very important that I get your feedback today, so we can deliver on schedule. Thanks for your help.

  1. That’s not what we agreed to in our meeting.

Tone interpretation – I know you weren’t paying attention and you’re trying to pull something over on me so let me set you straight.

What could have been written – I checked my notes and seem to have a different conclusion. Would you have a few minutes for us to talk and figure this out today? Thanks.

To convey your intended email emotional tone, use these tips:

  • Assess your relationship with the receiver. Adjust your level of writing formality to match the relationship.
  • Email is more than just the transmission of information. It is about managing a relationship remotely. Consider leading with a social comment like you were talking face-to-face. For example, “I’m looking forward to working with you on this project”.
  • If there is room for misinterpretation take the time to write the email to ensure your message is more likely received with your true intention. This might make the email longer.
  • Do not use text speak like “lol” or “BTW” or emoticons unless you know the person really well.
  • Be careful with cc’s and bcc’s. The person receiving the email may have a different interpretation depending on who has been copied in. Also, a person who is blind copied may reply, forgetting that they were a blind copy.
  • ALL CAPS is the same as screaming at someone.
  • Don’t overuse punctuation.
  • If you are not sure about the tone of an email you are sending, have someone else read it and provide feedback before you send it. If no one else is available save the email as a draft and come back in a couple of hours to review before sending it.
  • Most importantly, know when to pick up the phone or meet face-to-face to discuss an issue.