Tone’t You Forget About Me

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,

Let me first start off by saying that your recent workplace experience is quite a common one, especially with fellow members of the millennial generation just beginning to enter the job market. When you already have to take on the high amount of stress that comes with starting a new job, the last thing you want to worry about is offending your co-workers and supervisors. I definitely get that. Judging from your email, you seem like genuine and considerate individual who really just wants to get along with fellow workers, and so it seems to me that you should not reconsider your intentions, but rather your tone.

More times than not, you’ll find that the most common source of office miscommunication is a tone deaf email. What is a tone deaf email, you ask? Any email, or any other piece of office writing for that matter, that lacks personality, voice, or clear and conscious subject matter may be considered “tone deaf”. Tone is a necessity to all forms of communication because it can grab the reader’s attention and allows the reader to understand exactly what the writer is trying to communicate, as well as what theirnon-face-to-face motivations are for communicating. I know it may not seem like much at first, but the truth is, writing that lacks tone can cause confusion and prove to be very problematic for the workplace environment. Remember that emails cannot convey facial expression, voice inflections, and other cues that only come from face-to-face conversation. This can make an email’s message sometimes a little ambiguous for the reader.

Though I haven’t had a lot of work experience, (just one recent internship actually), I’d be lying if I said that I hadn’t sent my fair share of tone deaf emails that caused some misunderstandings and hurt feelings around the office. One example that I can remember vividly was an encounter I had over email with a co-worker over the summer. Essentially, the firm that I was working at was hosting a large private event, and I was meant to draft and finalize a pamphlet that would be given to all attendees of the event that would have information about the night’s agenda and the names of all those who were going to be presenting. At this time, I had already finished my section of the finalized pamphlet, and so I passed it onto my co-worker to do their part, and then send it back to me so I could proof read everything and then send the final copy to my boss. While the pamphlet was in the hands of my co-worker, I received this email:

“Hey Jake!

I wanted to let you know that I have placed the almost-final copy of the pamphlet on your desk, so feel free to take a look! I added some pictures of the staff members above their names so that the people in attendance could really put a face to the names that they see. I also added a border around the front page and then changed the background color. Please let me know if there are any last minute edits I should make before we send it in for real. Thanks!!”

To which I simply responded (after checking out the pamphlet),

“Unbold the names and make sure the images are straight. Thanks.”

Now my email response may not seem “ incredibly offensive” (after all, I said “thanks” didn’t I? ) but it was not perceived in the way that I intended it to be. Minutes after I sent it, my co-worker comes to me and apologizes for making the changes that he did, saying that he’s embarrassed and that he didn’t mean to ruin the pamphlet. I was taken back. I had no idea how he came to the conclusion that I didn’t like his additions. After talking some more, I realizedconfused-Guy it was my email and its lack of tone that discouraged him.

I could have easily avoided this situation had I first considered who my audience was and what exactly I wanted him to understand. My co-worker had spent a lot of his time on this project, and I really thought his additions made the pamphlet great. However, my email failed to convey any of that to him, and so it came across that I didn’t appreciate what he had done. I also failed to be courteous and sincere with my last minute constructive criticism. My email lacked a greeting, and reads more like a stern command than a piece of friendly advice. My defense was that I was in a hurry and I just wanted to get straight to the point. But just because I didn’t intend for my message to be inconsiderate, didn’t mean that I wouldn’t be received that way. I should have instead greeted him when responding, stressed the fact that I truly appreciated his ambitiousness, and then administered my final critiques in a sincere, friendly manner. The occasional exclamation point after positive points doesn’t hurt either and shows the reader that you’re really invested in what you’re communicating!! This may seem like a lot to consider, but remember that a little planning before hand can help alleviate the problems that arise after sending a tone deaf email. 

Good luck!


8 thoughts on “Tone’t You Forget About Me

  1. Hi Jake! I really enjoyed your take on this subject. I too have been guilty of sending “tone def” emails and/or text messages. The more we rely on technology for communication the more likely we are to forget that some things are lost in translation while communicating digitally. I think as millennials we have adjusted to sending short blurbs via messenger or text without realizing the lack of inflection. While the intent may be pure it’s really how our words are perceived that matters. While you don’t necessarily have to be best friends with everyone in the office it’s important to maintain positive relationships. Part of maintaining these relationships is thinking before you act or speak. There are all sorts of workplace lawsuits filed every year over this exact issue. While someone may not have intended to offend someone else the end product is still the same. In order to avoid this dilemma employees should certainly consider your advice. Overall I think your perspective was really interesting and very applicable to any workplace.

  2. Hi Jake,
    I really enjoyed reading your blog post! The way you pulled the readers in by using a comforting tone in your introduction set a good platform for the rest of the post. I really liked the beginning of your post when you mentioned that this is a very common thing to experience in the workplace. I also really enjoyed the way that you thoughtfully talked about how In Hot Water just needs to focus on tone rather than intention. I think that this is something that many people may get confused with.

  3. The title of your blog post definitely made me want to read more! I liked how you immediately assured “In Hot Water” that their issues were common in the workplace. You made the reader a lot more at ease with your friendly, relatable tone. It was great how you defined a tone deaf email because it helped set the stage for the rest of your post. Your own personal anecdote really helped to strength the post. I have been in the same boat as you and have completely given off a tone that was not at all intended. You have wonderful advice on how to avoid uncomfortable situations like that in the future!

  4. Hi Jake! First, I loved your title, it is clever and grabbed my attention right away! I thought you did a really good job of relating to your reader and their current struggle in your first paragraph. By doing this you put the reader at ease and make them comfortable with you and whatever advice you may have for them. I also thought it was clever how you tied in the millennial connection by reassuring the reader that many millennials have the same problem especially when starting a new job. Overall Well done! I look forward to reading your posts in the future.

  5. Hi! Awesome title first off, absolutely hilarious. After reading the first sentence I immediately wanted to read more. I thought the way in which you chose to start your post was very appealing and very effective in grabbing your readers attention. You’re completely right in that section too; it is a common mistake that a lot of millennials make when they are first entering the workforce! The other part of your post that I thought was very relevant and helped put things in perspective was the section where you gave an example that personally had happened to you. The example was very good and helped to put things into perspective for your readers. Great post!

  6. Hi Jake! Great personal experience, it really made it clear what a tone deaf email can look like. Even something that you wouldn’t expect to be taken in a negative way can sometimes come off that way, and I think that you provided the perfect example. I like that you mentioned using punctuation and greetings as the main way to show enthusiasm and excitement and how it can differentiate your emails from the rest. I like that you pointed out that just because you are in a hurry doesn’t mean you should skip the formalities of remembering to put in a greeting and include personality into your email.

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