Watch Your Tone

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,

office pic.jpg 2 Never fear, this is not a new problem, and you are not alone. Many millennials experience this problem both in and outside of the workplace. Our emails, text messages, and IM’s are often “tone deaf”. Essentially, suggesting that when we craft written messages we forget to consider our intentions. This article really spells out the root cause of “tone deaf” emails (if you need further clarification). When writing it is important to consider why we are actually sitting down behind our computer, our phone, or simply putting pen to paper. You likely are not simply writing, to write.

Okay, so deep breaths. It’s all going to be okay, I can assure you that this is not an uncommon problem and can be easily remedied with just a few simple questions. Here are some questions suggested by Purdue Owl that I think will help.  When you finally sit down to write your emails consider asking yourself these questions:

Why am I writing this document? You are likely sitting down to write an email for a reason. Consider your end goal before you even begin. For example, if you want your audience to stop leaving their old lunches and/or Tupperware in the fridge (a common problem in my office) you might want to consider opening with the benefits of a healthy, clean work environment. This tone will come across as concerned, rather than critical. Typically if people can understand the end goal they are more likely to participate. Keep that in mind while crafting your emails. However, try and remain authentic in your emails. If you have asked multiple times for this behavior to change, or action to be taken, it might be time to take a more authoritative stance. Each situation is different, and while I would suggest always taking a positive approach, there are instances that call for bluntness.

Who am I writing to and what do I want them to understand? I think this question can often be interchangeable with the first. You want to establish, in your head, before writing, what the take away is. An article I love, and reference all the time is a Forbes article on “Writing Riduclously Good Emails”. What does your audience need to learn or understand? If it’s something more technical, consider bullet points and short concise sentences. If it’s something a little more personal, draft it like you would a letter. For instance, you wouldn’t approach a conversation about how to download an app, as you would one about someone’s pet dying. One is understanding a linear process while the other is more subjective.

What kind of tone should I use? Again, I this this question goes hand in hand with the previous questions. Your tone should be determined after you have answered the previous questions. If you are trying to comfort someone, sympathetic is the way to go. If you are trying to convince someone to change their behavior, logic and genuine concern is for you. If you are simply trying to deliver directions, it might be best to take an instructive and informational tone. This article is a great resource for avoiding avoiding “tone def” emails.  Remember: tone is subjective, and establishing the right tone is different for every topic.

Finally, go talk to some of your co-workers in person. I realize this may be awkward, but people tend to loosen up about misunderstandings via email when, you take the time to go talk to them in person. Solid work relationships are the cornerstone of success in business. If you can’t get along with your co-workers, it not only makes your work environment uncomfortable, but it makes it difficult to get help. I can assure you that you are not the first person to struggle with tone, and you certainly will not be the last. You are human, and it’s never too late to make adjustments. Good luck, I hope to hear good news from you soon!


Published by

Jessica Lindimore Robinson

Hi, my name is Jessica. I'm currently finishing up my B.A in English at CU Boulder and am hoping to begin work in the non-profit sector. My passion is helping people and my hope is to apply that passion to all of my professional endeavors.

2 thoughts on “Watch Your Tone

  1. Jessica, I was a little worried when I read the title of this blog post but after reading a few sentences in I was able to calm any nerves that I had. You did a great job by making the readers problem seem common. This allows me to feel very comfortable and ready to right my mistakes. Breaking the post into three sections helped me not feel too overwhelmed with what I was reading. Those three sections also made the problem seem very simple. Finding simplicity within a problem is usually tough but you did a great job of explaining that it was an easy fix. Good job!

  2. Hey Jessica! I totally agree that our generation tends model our emails after our instant messages and texts. Texts require little effort or thought, and so generally, they are a very tone-deaf form of communication. It’s crucial that members of our generation remember that emails should require our full attention, and so we should treat them very differently than we do texts. I also appreciated your advice of following up with your coworkers after. Regardless of how conscious you are of how your recipient may interpret your email, you can’t be sure %100 of the time that they will understand what you are communicating clearly. Talking to them after the fact will allow you to see what you did well and what you can improve on for the future. Nice job!!

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