Email etiquette continues to be one of the most requested topics at our seminars. I don’t think people intentionally write emails that seem rude to recipients or cause difficulty because of how the tone is interpreted. Yet, it happens frequently, as evidenced by the number of requests we receive to address it.
Email is one of the, if not the, major communication tools in business today. But, like all tools, when used inappropriately it can cause damage. Its biggest benefit, speed of communication, is also its biggest problem. In the moment, dashing off an email or a reply can seem like you are being efficient, direct, and succinct, but in the eyes of the recipient your message may be perceived as disrespectful and/or rude. Its biggest deficit is that it depends on words only – no tone or voice, no facial expressions to emphasize the intention of your words.
One of the best ways to “hear” your tone of voice is to read it out loud. It’s important to actually hear your words. Reading it silently doesn’t do the trick, but read it out loud and you’ll hear if your tone is what you want. If reading aloud will disturb your officemates, take a copy of the email into an empty room and give it a go.
However, before you even write your email, consider applying the Who, What, When, Where rule to determine if using email will be your most effective way to communicate. Emails and texting are great for facts: the who, what, when and/or where, of a message: “The January 24th meeting with ABC Corp has been moved to The Oak Room at the Hyatt on January 28th.”
When your message focuses on the why, opinion, or a lengthy, complicated explanation, the chance that the tone of your message will be misinterpreted increases significantly. Couple that with an innate tendency to fire off emails quickly, and you have a formula for an email being perceived as rude even if that was far from your intention. If you do notice that your email is veering into a negative tone or is attempting to deal with a difficult or sticky situation, that’s the signal to consider putting the email into the draft bucket. Step away for a few minutes and then reread it. If it is still questionable, then email may not be the best way of communicating your message. Either a phone call or, even better, an in-person visit may help resolve the issue without misinterpretation of the message you are conveying.
Be especially careful when you find yourself in an email stream that devolves into frustration or anger. Any time you begin to sense that the thread is becoming unpleasant, that is the moment to pick up the phone or visit the person to resolve the issue.
If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to email@example.com. You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.
Peter Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.