When I heard approximately 100 billion business emails are sent and received every day, I thought, “Yup, sounds like my inbox.”
Email is a part of the daily office routine we’ve all come to know and hate. As a means of communicating, it’s both convenient and awful; in fact, its convenience may be exactly why we suffer under digital blizzards of email. Yet, despite its frequency, the quality of email communication is dismal – and judging by the anxiety surrounding email writing, we know it.
Presenting an appropriate tone through text is always a challenge; in addition to vocal indicators like pitch and tempo of speech, little physical cues, like blushes, shrugs, and facial expressions (known as “kinesic indicators”) are missing from non-verbal communication forms like email. The further removed the conversation is from a face-to-face meeting, the more the recipient must assume about the sender to interpret the message, and the harder it is to convey nuance.
The how-tos on email writing are out there, yet pet peeves in professional communication keep creeping in. So instead of another style guide, let’s run through the biggest email fails to avoid.
I do declare, the extremity of formal expression is hereto abolished, and shall not be employed in electronic communique.
Just because you’re writing, doesn’t mean you can’t use a normal tone. Whilst business communications should be professional, an overabundance of formality isn’t the way to achieve it, and your recipients will often walk away confused.
Contractions (words shortened by way of an apostrophe – can’t, don’t, won’t) are not only normal, but often more common than their long-form counterparts. Since most of your audience uses them (including when they speak), you should too.
Flowery language sounds poetic, but in professional communication, it’s pointless. No one is asking you to be Shakespeare; as long as we all know what actions to take away from the email, it’s done its job.
If you struggle with this one, try reading it out loud before you hit send. Do you sound like you’re on stage? Do you have the urge to puff out your chest and tread the boards, projecting your memo on coffee-maker etiquette? If you answered yes, go back and make it more casual.
The short, sharp shock
Abruptly ending your email, or forgetting to couch your language in modifiers, makes your audience feel like you’re snapping at them. It’s a common mistake when trying to say something in a hurry, and it usually reads as rude.
Don’t get caught short: imagine repeating whatever you’ve written to the recipient’s face. If you feel the need to add words to soften your language, or realised you didn’t say say please and thank you, it’s time to make some edits.
Speaking of time – it’s a relative thing. Even in emails.
The importance of chronemics in communication – the way we value and experience time when we talk – is bigger than you might think. Your perception of time passing as you await a response is different to the recipient, who, busy with other tasks, experiences time moving faster. So whilst you feel the drag of anticipation (a passive state), the recipient feels time flying by, and perceives their response time as perhaps more reasonable than you do.
Another consideration is what email communication says to your audience about the urgency of your message. Typically, a more urgent message will come via phone, interrupting the recipient as a matter of necessity; the fact you’re happy to stick it in an email already says you don’t need an immediate response.
The takeaway here is this: don’t email if it’s urgent. If you do email, give your recipient ample time to respond.
Be polite, not prostrate. It’s great to respect a colleague’s time, but you aren’t indebted to them. So many emails repeat phrases like “if it’s not too much trouble”, “when you have time”, and “whenever is convenient.” Once is enough to show courtesy without overdoing it.
Over chess one night in the orangery, my elderly uncle (then in his eighties) imparted his wisdom, as he was often wont to do. As we sipped wine and watched the sun set over the trees, he shifted his pawn to E7 and whispered to me in his husky old voice:
“Get to the point.”
Only say what’s directly relevant. Excessive detail obscures your message and reduces its impact.
Emojis are a terrible idea. Not only can they not be read by screen readers, instantly excluding parts of your audience (and potentially risking an Americans with Disabilities Act violation), but you never know how the recipient will react to the image you send. Your facial expressions are read in real-time, and are influenced by the immediate context of the audience; an emoji doesn’t offer instant feedback, and may be taken the wrong way.
The fix is simple. Don’t use emojis in professional emails. Ever.
You sent an email, but got no response. Now what? It’s down to context.
Is it a time-sensitive matter? Give it a few hours, then follow up with a phone call. If it can wait, give the recipient a minimum of 24 hours before badgering them. Remember, you don’t know what’s going on in their work day, or their general life for that matter; there could be a number of reasons they haven’t got around to a response yet. Assume the best of intentions on their part before you act.