Email Stress Can Create A Mess

E-mail is a convenient form of communication, but it has its limitations and associated problems.  For example, it can be stressful to receive an e-mail from someone that has a “tone” that feels harsh or attacking.  The sender may not have intended to convey his or her message in that way, but the receiver may misinterpret or puzzle over the actual intent of the message.

Here are 12 easy to follow tips for sending professional e-mails and reducing the potential for miscommunication:

  1. Think about the point you wish to make.  Is an e-mail the best way to communicate this message?  If not, pick up the phone or seek a face-to-face meeting.
  2. Utilize the Subject line as a preview to the content of a message.  It does not need to be wordy or dramatic, but it should allow the person to have a sense of what they may find in your message.  For example, you would want to say, “Meeting Request” rather than “I Can’t Believe This!” or “I think it would be good if we could meet tomorrow to discuss some problems.”
  3. Pick your words carefully.  The words in a typical communication represent only about 7-10% of how we normally transfer messages to others.  Unlike face-to-face meetings or even phone calls, those who read your e-mail messages don’t have the benefit of your pitch, tone, inflection, body language, or other non-verbal cues.  In e-mails, words are the entire message.  Be mindful of your “written tone.”  If you are trying to make a joke, it may not come across as one.  Sarcasm, for example, does not always reflect the intended meaning.  If a message gets “lost in translation,” you risk offending the other party or creating a negative impression.  It is better to err on the side of being less humorous than to risk being misunderstood.  Also, ask yourself, “Is a professional email the right place to make a joke?”
  4. E-mail is a good way to praise someone.  In contrast, criticizing others via e-mail can be problematic.  These kinds of communications are usually better handled face-to-face or over the phone.  Critical e-mail messages can also take on a life of their own.  They are easily forwarded, and you can create a chain of conflict that you did not intend.
  5. Copy only those who need to be included in a communication.
  6. Sometimes an email can make you feel angry, but never reply to an email out of anger.  It almost never serves your long-term interests.  You may type things in the heat of the moment that you would not say if you had time to consider the effects of your words.   If writing down your thoughts and feelings makes you feel better, go ahead and write the message in a word processing document and hold onto it for a day or two.  After a few days, consider if you really want to communicate your thoughts in that way.  Most likely, you will be glad that you did not send the message.  You also can just write your feelings in a journal or talk them out with an uninvolved party.  Co-workers could be involved, potentially, so do not talk to those who might get on your angry bandwagon and stoke the flames or those who could be placed in an uncomfortable position in your workplace.
  7. Don’t write in ALL CAPS!  It makes people feel like you are shouting at them.
  8. Don’t send or forward emails containing offensive, libelous, defamatory, or obscene remarks or images.  If you do so, you can put yourself and the organization at risk.  You could be found to be in violation of company policy or you could be sued for simply passing something along, even if you aren’t the original author.
  9. E-mail is not necessarily private.  If you send an email on a workplace computer, anyone with sufficient authority or access can monitor your conversations on company-owned servers.  You have no legal protection.  Those who receive your e-mail can forward it to others.  If you need to communicate, privately, it would be best to use a personal computer, use the telephone, or have a face-to-face conversation.
  10. Don’t use “Reply All” unless everyone really needs to receive your reply.  It often annoys those who do not need to hear your comments, and it can lead to overwhelming amounts of email in someone’s Inbox.
  11. Always re-read your e-mail before you send it and check your spelling.  Misspelled words, poor grammar, or incorrect punctuation can reflect negatively on your level of competency and professionalism.  This will also help you to identify problems with the tone or content of your emails.
  12. Perception can be seen as reality.  People make assumptions about inflections that others may not pick up on in your writing.  Put yourself in the shoes of the person who will receive the communication.  Will they understand what you wish to convey?  What might they perceive in your words that you may not intend?

E-mail is a great tool when used well.  It can also be a mess when you don’t practice good e-mail etiquette.