Email: Tone It Down

At a recent seminar we were discussing rudeness in the workplace. A hand shot up. One of the participants lamented the unfriendly tone she notices in emails. What, she wanted to know, is going on with people who write emails that seem to be so rude.

Tone matters. And email writers often underestimate the tone their writing takes on. When you talk on the phone with a person, they hear inflection and other clues that help transmit the tone of your words. When you speak face-to-face with a person, he has all the visual clues from your facial expressions and body language to help understand the tone of your words. What can be said sarcastically in person, and therefore is understood to be joking, can seem downright rude when just the words are seen on the screen.


Studies have shown that if you write something you think is positive in tone, the recipient will think it is neutral in tone. And when you write a message that you think is neutral in tone, the recipient takes it as negative in tone.

The difficult thing for you, as the writer, is that you don’t hear the tone in your words when you are writing or when you read the words back to yourself silently. So, what do you do when you are writing a difficult email or responding to someone who has been rude and you don’t want to respond in kind? How do you protect your messages from being interpreted negatively?


First, control the urge to hit the send button immediately upon finishing that last sentence. Let it simmer for a few minutes, and then reread it to see if you need to tone it down a bit.
Second, when you are about to reread it, take it into an empty room, close the door, stay standing, and read it out loud. Not silently. When you read it out loud, you will hear the tone your words are conveying. If you simply read it silently, you won’t hear that tone.
Third, ask someone you trust to read the email before you send it. More than once, I’ve printed out a copy of an email I wanted to send and asked a colleague to read it to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently being negative or rude. Often it has come back to me with suggested edits that most likely saved me from sending a message with a tone I really didn’t want conveyed.
Finally, if you don’t think your email is hitting the right note or the issue is a complicated one, consider picking up the phone or setting up a meeting. You may want to add the audio and visual cues back into your communication.
Email is a great business communication tool especially for who, what, when, and where. Save the why for in-person or phone conversation. Like any technology it’s not the tool that is rude but how it’s used.
Peter Post is the author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business.” For the past seven years he has been presenting the Emily Post Business Etiquette Seminar to corporations, non-profit and educational institutions, and government agencies. Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.


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