Tone Is Key

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,

You will never be able to please everyone. There are always going to be people criticizing QoR8Bv1S2SEqH6UcSJCA_Teayou for little things. Especially people older than you. I have already discussed how challenging it can be as a millennial in the workplace. Chances are you actually have good intentions in mind when sending emails, but you may be facing a battle you didn’t even realize you were fighting. You are experiencing something called “tone deaf” writing, and you aren’t the only person dealing with this problem. Good news is, as long as your willing to spend a little more time on your writing, you can make changes that will mend your relationships with your coworkers.

Word Choice: It is important to understand right off the bat that your reader cannot interpret your body language when they are reading your emails. This is something that we may not pay close attention to when we talk to people face-to-face, but it is actually key in effective communication. Little things like eye contact, hand gestures, and facial expressions all help people better interpret information. However, since that is impossible to convey over email, you have to be extra careful with every other variable that you have control over.

It is absolutely crucial to pick your words carefully. They can be misinterpreted so easily, so when in doubt be as conservative as you can. Sometimes we get into the habit of thinking that every person is our friend, and we can speak to each other with comfort. However, I would never even think about talking to my manager the same way I talk to my roommates. My roommates and I have a much deeper connection, so it is okay for us to speak freely. My manager on the other hand deserves the utmost respect, so I address her with that in mind. I understand that sometimes it is easy for a curse word to slip out, or to abbreviate words, but you need to read through every single word of your email to ensure that nothing is inappropriate for a professional setting. I know it seem silly, but even using “piss people off” in your letter could irritate someone. Your coworkers will be critical of you, so do your best to not give them any reason to question your word choice.

The Details: After you have finished writing the first draft of your email, go back and read it all over again from the beginning. Did you accidentally put a word in caps lock that could give someone the wrong impression? Did you use a “…” appropriately? These are examples of little things that could be taken the wrong way. For instance, although putting something in all capital letters could be intended to come off as excited, it can be super aggressive, and offend your audience depending on the context. Furthermore, an ellipsis (the “…” I mentioned above) could be intended to show a continuous thought, but your reader may think you’re annoyed or irritated about the subject. Again, this is all relative to the topic, but for the most part, these are the “little red flags” that you should pay attention to.

Final Thoughts: So when it comes down to it, keep things simple and purposeful. There is no need to use seven question marks after you ask something (it makes it seem like you’re annoyed) and you don’t need to underline every other line you write. Put yourself in  your readers shoes, and think about the things people say over email that rub you the wrong way. Paying attention to that alone will make you more conscious of your own writing. Finally, sending an apology email as a follow up probably would not hurt. Even if it is just a couple of sentences, I’m sure your coworkers would appreciate it.

Good Luck!

Brittany Hanson



2 thoughts on “Tone Is Key

  1. Hey Brittany! I really enjoyed your post! I appreciated the part you added in about word choice and how just a few different words can entirely change how your message is received. It’s true that I communicate in a totally different style when I’m socializing with my friends, compared to my boss or coworkers. You want to use phrases that sound friendly and approachable, while also remaining professional. I also agree that you should always go back and re-read your writing. Even though something like forgetting a comma, or forgetting to capitalize a certain word may seem fairly insignificant, you can lose some credibility and your recipient may think that you don’t really care about what’s being communicated. Great job again!!

  2. Hi Brittany, I liked how you immediately told your audience, “you will never be able to please everyone”. It is so true and as hard as we try to master tone, someone will inevitably be upset about something. Your section about word choice gave great advice and was very relevant to communication today. It’s so easy to fall into the old habits of casual communication and forgetting your audience, but you gave very useful advice to combat this. Your idea of sending out a quick apology letter to the coworkers was a unique idea that I hadn’t previously seen in other posts. Overall, great work!

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