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:
How many times have you heard one of your friends agonize over the meaning of the latest text they received from their crush? Does it mean they like me, or are they just being nice? What does ‘ok’ mean?
Although it seems silly and amusing to watch your friend do this, it reveals that the meaning of electronic messages can be interpreted in a thousand different ways. Today, as electronic mediums grow in popularity and prevalence in the business world, it is becoming increasingly important to monitor what the tone of our messages are saying beyond the meaning of the plain text. One ‘tone deaf’ email to a recruiter or boss can eliminate you from contention for hiring or that next promotion. Though monitoring your tone may seem even more confusing than deciphering the meaning of the last text your crush sent, by using a few simple tricks you can ensure that your emails are never misinterpreted again.
Greetings and Closings
The first and easiest step in making sure your emails send the right message is to pay attention to your greetings and closings. By nature, these will be some of the first and last things that your reader will see. Accordingly, it is imperative to set the tone for the rest of the email and leave them feeling good about it when they are done. If your reader feels negatively about the greeting or closing, this can cause them to feel adversely about the rest of the email as well.
The correct greeting and closing will look different depending on what situation you are in and who the recipient is. For business emails, it is generally good practice to initially use formal salutations. This is especially true for anyone who is your superior. Once the line of communication has been opened, you may then choose to mirror what the other person is doing. This will ensure you are not under or overly formal in whatever situation arises.
Assume Your Reader is Grumpy
Once you move into the body of the email, you must then start to think about what kind of tone your language is portraying. A good way to check if you are using the right tone is to imagine reading your email as someone who is grumpy or stressed out. A simple sentence like “Hey, I need your report done by the 3pm deadline today.” could make someone who is already angry feel as if you are micromanaging them and do not feel confident in their abilities to complete the task. Alternatively, you could say “The 3pm deadline for your report is particularly important to keep us on schedule. I really appreciate your help and look forward to seeing your findings”. This change in phrasing conveys your message while also making the recipient feel important rather than belittled.
As with salutations, you must also consider your audience when you are writing the body of your email. In a business context, this means that you do not send emails to your boss that look the same as the text messages you send to your friends. Although this may seem simple and straightforward, it is easy to forget about when you are busy and have many other things on your mind. One basic example of this is ‘yeah’ vs ‘Yes’. By using the former, your tone could suggest to a coworker that they are not worth your full attention and time or that you are just lazy. However, by taking the two seconds to change your response to ‘Yes’, you immediately seem more professional and engaged. Screening your messages for things like this is critical because it could make the difference between getting what you need or getting ignored.
I hope these tips help can help you ease the tension at work and create great relationships with your coworkers.