Why You’re Doing Email Wrong
July 16, 2020
Writing Better Emails: Show Respect Through Communication
Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill – Buddha
Compared to the art of public speaking, which has been an integral part of human interaction for millennia, short-form written communication is relatively new. Aside from hand-writing letters, for which the latency period between responses could be on the scale of weeks or months, the ability to communicate through short, written messages has only been available to us for the last thirty or so years. With regards to face-to-face interaction, many of us are aware that there are specific behaviors that you can adopt, particularly with regards to non-verbal communication, that will make you appear more warm, open, and professional. Have good posture. Maintain eye contact while speaking. Greet others with a firm handshake and a smile (of course this varies between cultures; I can only speak to what is acceptable in the United States). I believe that for most of us, these guidelines were explicitly told to us at some point in our lives, though the degree to which each person follows them varies on an individual basis. However, it seems as though the same advice has not been as widely passed down with regards to written communication, such as email. Therefore, perhaps there is a need for widely-adopted criteria of etiquette that have not yet been established.
With this in mind, I would like to boldly propose some guidelines for written communication that could be analogous to the ones mentioned for face-to-face communication above. With the written word, we don’t have the benefit of facial expressions or vocal intonations, but I believe there are other subtle things we can do to appear more open and professional in their place. It is important to acknowledge that there are many forms of written communication today, ranging from (shortest to longest) texting/instant message, social media, email, reviews, reports, novels, and instruction manuals. However, for the purposes of this article, I will be specifically discussing tips for email between business professionals.
1. Understand When to Use “Reply” vs. “Reply All”
For each of the following pieces of advice, try to apply what might be considered appropriate or courteous in an in-person conversation to how you interact with others using email. For example, many business professionals misidentify the situations in which the use of “reply all” is appropriate. Often, people think they are being polite by not always using “reply all”, believing that they are saving people from inbox clutter with messages that do not concern them. However, this thinking is typically misguided. Imagine that a colleague approaches you in a shared space, such as the break room in your office for example, in which there are several other individuals. Suppose this colleague asks you, at a volume loud enough for everyone in the room to hear, what you did during the past weekend. Seeing that you now have everyone’s attention in the room, whether you wanted it or not, it would be inappropriate to respond at a whisper so that only the person who asked the question could hear. Although only one person initiated the conversation, there are now several others who may also be wondering what exciting things happened to you during the weekend and are expecting a response. And unfortunately, you don’t always have control over who is in the room.
This is the same with email communication. If one of your colleagues sends an email such as,
“Hi Jane, what is the status of XYZ assignment? Thanks, John”
and copies five other people on that email, you now have an obligation to send a response so that all parties involved know that you saw the message and are capable of responding. You may now be asking, so what if I don’t respond to everyone that John copied? The status of that particular assignment may not even be relevant to some of those people. Well, if you then only respond to John, after a while some of those other people might assume that you did not see the email and may follow up with you. This will lead to answering further unnecessary emails. If you don’t think that everyone copied on the email is relevant to the conversation, instead of leaving others completely in the dark, perhaps you “reply all” with a message such as,
“Hey John, I will follow up with you on this individually in [period of time]. Thanks, Jane”
Now, at least everyone knows that you have seen the message and plan on discussing it privately with John. You are then free to compose a separate message with only the people that you believe are needed.
So when is the use of “reply” acceptable? Well the obvious difference between in-person communication and email communication is that email is done asynchronously, meaning that there is an expected time delay between when a question is asked and a response is received. In the example above, if Jane knew that her response was needed within a particular amount of time, it may be polite to “reply” only to John, letting him know that she saw his message and is planning on writing a response within an hour, or after a meeting, etc., thereafter writing a proper response with “reply all”. However, you should generally expect that if a response is not received within a couple days that others may reach out asking for an update.
2. Use Exclamation Points to Sound Friendlier, But Don’t Overdo It!
When reading almost anything, most people, unless they are a practiced speed-reader, employ a method of internal speech to interpret what they are reading. You may be doing it now; pay attention to the how the voice in your head sounds as you read this sentence. No, you’re not going crazy. This is a very common way to assign meaning to written words. Unfortunately, a big challenge when writing anything, but particularly with regards to short-form communication such as email, is that the internal speech of the reader often assigns emotional meaning to the words where none was intended by the author, or vice-versa. For example, consider the following email from a supervisor to her subordinate:
“John, meet me in my office. Thanks. Jane”
Now, perhaps Jane simply wants to discuss the weather with John and has a nice view from her office. However, John’s stomach has just done somersaults, because, due to the deadpan, menacing way his internal voice read that message, clearly he’s about to be fired, or worse. Now, compare this with the message below:
“Hey John, when you get a chance, could you meet me in my office? Thanks! Jane”
Notice, although this section is about exclamation points, that there are actually three distinct differences between the first and second message.
First, it is always more courteous to pose a command as a question. Although Jane is technically asking John a question in which, grammatically, he could respond no, both people know that this is a command in disguise. But by posing this command as a question, Jane is showing respect for John and his time.
Second, qualifiers, such as “when you get a chance” or “if you don’t mind” or “if possible” or even “please”, softens the intent of the request for the reader. Unless the recipient is in the military, they probably don’t like to feel under command or patronized. By using phrases such as these, you show respect for another person’s time and acknowledge that perhaps they are doing something that could be more important than your request.
Finally, exclamation points are a useful tool for manipulating how a person’s internal voice interprets the words on the screen. Typically, periods merely invoke the end of a thought or a statement of fact. Notice the difference in the way you read “Thanks.” versus “Thanks!” The former is unemotional and blunt, whereas the latter invites the reader’s inner voice to add an upward inflection on the word, which usually translates as enthusiasm or cheerfulness. However, be careful not overuse exclamation points in a single email, or else you risk coming across as frivolous or disingenuous. Try only to use a maximum of two exclamation points per message, typically one in the greeting and one in the closing line of the email. And do not use multiple exclamation points in a row, unless you actually want to sound as though you are screaming!!!
3. Short and to the Point, But Not Too Short
The goal for all of these tips is ultimately to better demonstrate that you respect the people you communicate with on a daily basis. One subtle but very important way you can show respect is by acknowledging that a person’s time is valuable. By writing and sending an email to anyone, you are essentially forcing them to take time out of their day to both read your message and digest its meaning. Since reading a longer message takes longer to fully understand, you can show more respect for your colleagues’ time by making your messages short and to the point.
French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal famously said in one of a collection of letters, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” In essence, what Pascal is saying here is that it takes more time and more effort to write succinctly. It is much easier to type everything you are thinking in the moment and hit send, however if this results in an email that is the size of a small novel, the sentiment that you are conveying to your readers is that your time is more valuable than theirs. Even if your time is objectively more important, you should never act as though that is the case.
However, please do not interpret this final tip as equating to “The shorter, the better.” There are many instances in which an email can be too short. In particular, if you fail to fully answer all aspects of a question asked of you, that shows that you did not take the time to fully read and comprehend the original message. Also, one-word answers, even if they are to yes or no questions, demonstrate a lack of respect because it shows that you consider yourself too busy or too important to write in complete sentences. This is an aspect of email that is distinctly different from texting. Email correspondence typically mimics the cadence of traditional letter-writing, and therefore complete sentences are usually expected.
The purpose of all of these tips is to show respect to the people that you interact with on a daily basis. By being sensitive of peoples’ time and emotions, you will begin to appear more empathetic and approachable to others, which will in turn lead to gaining respect of your own. As noted in the quote at the outset, words are powerful tools which can command great influence when used properly, while at the same time can lead to misunderstanding when they are not. Learn to pay attention to the subtleties of your communication, and learn to care about how the way you speak, write, and act affects the people in your life.