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 their 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:
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 realized 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.