Dear 3040 and Beyond:
I’m a new grad at a big firm and I think I’ve messed things up with my co-workers. They’ve been acting weird around me and my only office friend says I’ve been offending people in my emails. From my boss to my peers, it looks like I’ve made everyone mad. The thing is, I have no idea what kinds of stuff I could say in email that would piss people off! I’m a nice person and I haven’t had many problems like this before. Can you help?
In Hot Water
Dear In Hot Water,
It seems to me that the problem you are having is not because you are a mean or disrespectful person, but because it is possible that the tone of your emails may be unintentionally offensive. Written communication is difficult because your reader cannot hear the tone of your voice or observe your body language as you communicate. This disconnect can cause your coworkers to be offended by your emails. Because of this disconnect, written communication is inherently sensitive and requires extra consideration. But don’t lose heart, you are not the only person that struggles with some level of tone-deafness in your emails!
The tone of an email is crucial to the effectiveness of the message you are trying to convey. Globe University reminds writers that being “tone deaf” when writing an email can potentially cause the reader to misinterpret the senders intentions. In order to avoid such miscommunications that reduce the effectiveness of a message, it is important that you are hyper aware of how the purpose of your message can be misrepresented by the perceived tone of your message. While you may think you are being concise and to the point those who receive your email may regard your conciseness as bossy and overbearing.
Writer and designer D.T. Griffith discusses words and phrases that can turn people off and suggests that when writing an email you should be highly decisive. Saying things like “hmmmmmm” and “let me think about this” are unnecessarily showing your thought process as the writer and can annoy or anger the reader. This lack of professionalism in writing can also offend the reader by making them feel like the you are talking down to them, or underestimating their intelligence. Simple things like addressing coworkers by their first names and not by their full title can offend them and create animosity towards you.
Jane Porter of FastCompany addresses the issue that surfaces when emails are perceived as passive aggressive and certain things that can cause this perception. While you (and many others!) may think adding a smiley face or an exclamation mark to an email is harmless and friendly, when your reader is sensitive about the subject matter these symbols can be taken as a act of passive aggression masking an underlying negative emotion. To combat this make sure to be mindful of the content of your message and how that content may make the reader feel before adding any extra bling to your email.
Something else to keep in mind when writing emails to coworkers is that many of the people you are emailing receive thousands of emails a day. Sending a message like “can you do this or not????” can be offensive to someone who does a million things every day and already feels overworked and under appreciated. While this was surely not your intent, the tone of your message would inevitably offend your coworkers and cause tension.
Because it’s nearly impossible to know what phrases or words will potentially offend certain people in your office, it’s always safest to use words that have little possibility of having a negative or offensive tone. Simple blunders like using one gender pronoun over another in a mass email to coworkers can be very offensive to some of the people you work with. As a result, be sure to always think about exactly who is reading your email and plan accordingly when selecting the language that will establish the tone in your email.
I hope these tips are applicable and help you to become a more successful communicator! I know this can be overwhelming, but bon’t feel discouraged! With a little effort and a new perspective I am sure you can overcome this road bump.
Best of Luck,