Case Study: I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We’ve never met before. Our paths have never crossed, yet you’ve been referred to me through a mutual acquaintance and you have to send me an email. Do you take more time writing your message before you hit the send button?
Last month, I received an email from someone I have not met before and I wasn’t pleased with the tonality of it. The message was very direct, critical and even condescending of me. This lady who sent me the email copied several people including my supervisor and apparently wanted to make an example of me without knowing all the facts. Yet, I tried to be as courteous as I could in my reply. It turned into a very stressful moment for me.
I have some pet peeves, but this one is more than that, I downright despise bad email communications. And, most of the time this can be avoided if everyone took the time to employ good email etiquette. Yes, there is such a thing. Think about it for a minute. I’m not sitting in front of you, I’m not talking to you over the phone, therefore I can’t hear the tone of your voice or see your body language to know how you’re really communicating. All we have are the words in an email and we have to read between the lines. In the case study above, I knew exactly the tone of the lady’s email to me. In fact, my supervisor and I had to have a conversation over it.
So how do you know if the message you’re conveying to me will get the result you’re looking for? We have nothing more than the words we see.
All of us have Different Personalities
If I know the person I’m emailing, I can dismiss a direct tone or a message from them who isn’t exactly the touchy-feely kind. All of us have different personalities. We communicate differently and I’m not so over sensitive that I easily get offended, however there is a right and wrong way to send emails especially to those we’ve never met before. For example, if you’re the type of person that likes to get right to the point and send one-sentence answers or phrases, let that person know not to be put off by the way you email, but that you’re just a “right to the point” kind of person. This way when you do send email, the other person won’t think you’re a grouch! By letting the people that you communicate regularly with know this, you’ll cut down significantly on miscommunications and misinterpretations.
We should be more concerned with giving off the right impression especially with a first contact. If the lady who sent me the bad email were giving a luncheon and invited me, do you think I would be the first to register? Probably not, and in fact I might just ignore the invitation altogether and worse… the image I have of her may not even be accurate. But because of her email to me, the impression I’m left with is that she is critical, easily offended, and a condescending type person. So, how could she fix this? A simple apologetic email would suffice. It doesn’t have to be long either, just an email to say something like, “If I came across direct in my email to you today, please accept my apology, I was having a difficult day or I was in the middle of traffic, etc..” She wouldn’t have to give a lengthy response, this simple apology will go a long way in restoring a misunderstanding. On the flip side, in her case, she may not even think she did anything wrong. Often, we just do things without even thinking.
We’re not always aware of how we’re communicating, but just taking some extra time and thinking about what we’re writing is key. And you can use this tip if you think you might have come across to someone wrongly in an email whether they are an acquaintance or a friend. I don’t expect her to apologize to me, I just used this an example. In fact, when I wrote back and apologized for any misunderstanding and tried to explain the situation since she didn’t have all the facts, I never received a reply. My supervisor also wrote her and she didn’t reply to her either.
Here’s my TOP 6 tips to better communicate over email:
- Addressing the person. There’s nothing wrong with writing, “Hi Jane” or “Hello Bruce” before you go on with your message. You do not have to always ask how the person is doing especially if you email them several times a day. But everyone likes like to be addressed first and I don’t think most of us like to have orders shouted at us all the time.
- Speaking of shouting, turn off the ALL CAPS! There’s nothing worse than trying to read a message in all caps. This is big No-No in the cyber world! If you want to highlight something to make it stand out, you can use the bold feature. It is ctrl-B on Windows and command-B on the Mac.
- Take time to read your message before you hit the Send button. I can’t tell you how many times I have read and re-read my email before I sent it out. I normally ask these two questions and I find they help: “Is my message written in a way that I will get the most positive reaction I can?”, and If I’m the recipient of this email, “does it sound too direct or critical, or professional, does it have a kind tone?”
- Proofread your emails. Spell checks don’t always catch mistakes. A lot of times it is word usage and not a typo. Just take these examples for instance. “The library is open to the pubic population!” or “My pubic is waiting for my appearance!” Notice the wrong word is used here (which should have been “public”) and how the wrong word totally changed the meaning of both these sentences. Be careful! Another example is the use of your and you’re. “Your” is a possessive pronoun meaning belonging to. You’re is a contraction that stands for “you are”. Check out how to use each one in a sentence: “Ms. Smith, your book that you ordered is ready for pick up.”, “Ms. Smith, you’re going to love this book you ordered.” How do I know which one to use? Well, in the 1st sentence the book belongs to Ms. Smith and in the 2nd sentence, you can actually not shorten the word “you’re” and use “you are” instead and the sentence still makes sense.
- Don’t write emails when you’re upset. Cannot stress this point enough. When you’re upset or frustrated, I suggest walking away from the computer, sit down, and allow yourself to calm down first. Then go back and write the email. When you’re angry, you are more likely to say something that you won’t be able to take back once it’s said. And, sending angry emails rarely gets you the response or solution you want anyway.
- You don’t need to press “Reply All” every time. Sometimes your email needs to go to the recipient and someone else, but not all the time. For instance, if you need to communicate a difficult email or one that really ought to be considered confidential only between you and the recipient, simply reply just to that person. Not everyone needs to know what you and that person are talking about. This is what I wish the lady had done, emailed ONLY me and discussed the problem with me rather than copying six other people. The two of us could have worked it out without bringing other people in that weren’t involved.
I think keeping these tips in mind will more likely give the message in email we want to and give us the reply we want. Proper email etiquette is certainly not dead. 🙂