Considering the average office worker receives around 121 emails and sends about 40 each day, finding the time to carefully craft emails might seem like a hassle.
Many of us hit reply and send without giving it a second thought, but what we write can have more of an impact than we realise — and have the potential to sabotage professional reputations and relationships.
“When we communicate, how we say things matters. How we behave matters, what gestures we use matters,” says Joanna Blazinska, a career coach and strategist. “But as we now communicate through screens, with camera off and through chats, how we write matters even more.
“Since remote work and distributed teams will now be a standard, every leader, manager and team member will need to possess good if not impeccable writing skills. Whether they will be used on Slack, email or any other tool, people need to be aware. Words carry emotion and convey intent.”
In the highly digitalised world, it’s easy for meanings to become distorted. When speaking to someone face-to-face, it’s easier to read their emotions and feelings which are often conveyed via non-verbal cues, such as body language or facial expressions. When communicating via email, it’s much harder to assess how someone really feels.
“A capital letter may change the meaning of a sentence and the message it actually conveys,” says Blazinska. “A lack of capital letters, a full stop, more than one exclamation mark, the number of typos from someone who tends to write well or response speed - all of these add context, emotion and cues to a conversation.”
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When it comes to emails, your wording is vital. If you’re not careful, you can believe that you’re saying something a certain way, while the person on the other end will interpret your message as pushy or rude.
Moreover, “email incivility” can have a serious impact on people’s stress levels. A 2018 study carried out by YoungAh Park, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois’ school of labour and employment relations, found “rude messages, non-urgent messages marked ‘high priority’, and time-sensitive messages sent with inadequate notice” – can have a significant effect on the recipient and the people around them.
Even how we sign-off an email matters. A quick “regards” or “best” at the end of a message may seem formal, but it can be interpreted as disrespectful to some. “The sign-off plays the role of a final word to the body of an email. Context matters. If the content was kind in its tone, the ending might be a bit more neutral and it will not have a major impact on the conversation on the whole,” says Blazinska. “However, this changes when there is conflict, which usually aggravates more quickly in writing than it would face to face. People tend to be more blunt and emboldened in written communication.”
However, following certain rules can improve your email etiquette and avoid miscommunications.
Think about your personal brand
Jo Clark, a career coach at Work It Sister, says it’s important to think about your personal brand and how you want to be perceived in the workplace. “We all know that relationship building is good for your career so signing off emails in a friendly and open way can help us make better connections quickly,” she says.
“Think about how you want the reader to feel. Even if you don’t like the person you’re emailing you probably don’t want to make them feel bad. So think about your tone and language. It’s OK to deliver direct, persuasive or request for information messages but think about adding some thoughtfulness, kindness or relationship building elements in there.”
Consider who is receiving your email
It helps to understand who the recipient of your email is, Blazinska adds. “What’s their position? Are they busy? How do they usually communicate? Do you know them well? Adjust your communication if you think these factors are important,” she says.
“Build a relationship before you get more casual. Signing off with ‘yours faithfully’ or with ‘xx’ might not be their preference or culturally acceptable by them. Some people might also take time to first develop a relationship, so that they can open up and be less formal.”
Sometimes, typos happen - especially if we are in a rush. Before sending an email, take a second to glance over it to make sure there aren’t any dodgy spellings.
“Pay attention to grammar, punctuation and spacing. Use tools to check,” says Blazinska. “Write what you’d like to read in an email yourself. No one likes receiving an impulsively typed email, written with attitude.”
It’s also important to be clear in an email. Although it’s tempting to shorten words, abbreviate or use jargon, too much can come across as rude. It can seem self-important or make the email difficult to understand, which can waste the recipient’s time. The meaning might seem obvious to you, but less so to someone hurriedly checking their emails on their phone over lunch.
Take other factors into account
Lastly, it’s important to be considerate but not to over-analyse. “We all live in our heads, especially at this point in time, which makes us all over-sensitive at times and in turn causes miscommunication,” Blazinska says. “All communication needs to be interpreted in context and in conjunction with the whole email and the other person’s communication style and intent.”
Some people just write and sign off emails in a certain way and it doesn’t have a deeper meaning. Others might be busy and spend less time on their emails. For example, writing short, succinct emails or signing off with an initial.
“There is a difference between emotionally charged communication and an assertive one,” she adds. “Be professional and respectful at all times.”
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