Conveying Tone Correctly

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

This Purdue Owl Article states that “Tone in writing refers to the writer’s attitude toward the reader and the subject of the message. The overall tone of a written message affects the reader just as one’s tone of voice affects the listener in everyday exchanges.”  Along with User-Centered Design, tone is extremely important when writing in the work place.  When writing an email or business memo, conveying a tone that does not sit well with your co-workers could intensely strain both in and out of office relationships.  Often we write as if we are writing a text message or Facebook message, and this casual writing may convey a tone that is appropriate in the workplace.  As shown in the e-mail above, being tone deaf is also a very common problem in the workplace.  To many of us it appears very obvious that the email is written in a way that may not sit well with some, but the author of the email is oblivious.  From saying “my only office friend” to “The thing is, I have no idea what kinds of stuff I could say in email that would pisthe-office2s people off! I’m a nice person and I haven’t had many problems like this before.”  This article from D.T. Griffith  has 5 steps to keep in mind when writing to colleagues, to make sure you are not being tone deaf.  The step that resonates with me the most is that “brevity counts, but only if it is clear.”  Often times co-workers will send 5 word messages asking about a project from a couple weeks ago.  While they may think that writing such a short email is helpful, it actually can make the process much more painful.  Instead of writing “status on that project we worked on?”, write “Have you finished the executive summary on the google project we worked on together?”  While it may seem like a very minute and small change, it really can mean the difference when fostering relationships with co-workers.  I know I have had a bad impression of someone I work with before I ever even meet them, just based on their tone in emails.

A good rule of thumb I always use is simply just read the email back to yourself and see if you would be happy with it being sent to you.  I believe using the correct tone in e-mails is just as important as resumes and cover letters.  Often cover letters and e-mails are all we have to set ourselves apart from others, and if a recruiter can tell you are genuinely interested in the job via your tone, you are in a much better place.  We often look over it when sending the dreaded emails to recruiters and just copy and paste the same thing every time.  By adding a bite of your own personal tone, the recruiter can really get a better read for who you are.

I’ll leave you with one more article from LinkedIn that has 10 ways to avoid negative tone in an email.  Instead of calling something a problem, call it a situation.  Do not just provide negative news, speak on why it happened and what the consequences will be.  I also like that they include to not directly target someone, say “the repot was not submitted” not “you did not submit the report.  Lastly, just be thoughtful.  Apply the golden rule, and decide if you would be happy with receiving that email.


4 thoughts on “Conveying Tone Correctly

  1. I really like your comment on reading out loud, that is my biggest my problem is not re reading my writing and i can really relate to that. It also is a great rule of thumb to check over your work, to make sure nothing is wrong or sloppy. I also really liked the article you left in the end about how to avoid negative tone in an email.

  2. Caleb,
    I like a lot of the points you brought up throughout your post, I talked bout my of the similar points in my post as well. I think the “pre-writing” stage is the most important aspect of a paper, as you are able to identify your audience, subject of the writing, and then ultimately the tone. As you said, I think its important for all writers to re-read their writing and honestly be doing it every paragraph. I think this is the best way to determine what your tone should be/is.

  3. The ideas you provide in your post are really interesting and useful in real work environment. You give some examples, I think one of the example is really useful: “Instead of writing “status on that project we worked on?” write “Have you finished the executive summary on the google project we worked on together?” The meaning of the two sentences is same, but when you make a little changes for the second sentence. This sentence’s tone sounds more polite and professional. So when we are writing emails we need to pay attention to use proper tone.

  4. Caleb,
    You made some good points here. Your tips are pretty helpful and I think that a lot of people could find this very helpful. I especially like The Office and the picture that you included. Your Linkedin article was interesting and I don’t think I have seen that one before. Good work.

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