Email Tone


Re-posted (with some additional comments) from http://the99percent.com/tips/6991/Email-Etiquette-II-Why-Emoticons-%28And-Emotional-Cues%29-Work, with kind regards.

[According to Daniel] Goleman, author of Social Intelligence and godfather of the field of Emotional Intelligence, … there’s a negativity bias to email – at the neural level. In other words, if an email’s content is neutral, we assume the tone is negative.  In face-to-face conversation, the subject matter and its emotional content is enhanced by tone of voice, facial expressions, and nonverbal cues.  Not so with digital communication.  Technology creates a vacuum that we humans fill with negative emotions by default, and digital emotions can escalate quickly (see: flame wars).  The barrage of email can certainly fan the flames.  In an effort to be productive and succinct, our communication may be perceived as clipped, sarcastic, or rude.  Imagine the repercussions for creative collaboration.

Tools are already emerging to address this phenomenon.  See ToneCheck, a “tone spellcheck” app that scans emails for negativity and then helpfully suggests tweaks to make your communication more positive (featured in The New York Times Magazine’s annual Year in Ideas issue).

[The following are some] simple ways to encourage positive digital communication … :

1. Heed the negativity bias. In this case, awareness and attention goes a long way. Consider how your communication may be perceived. Can you be more explanatory? Is your language positive as opposed to neutral?

2. Pay attention to your grammar. [When writing emails in haste (and sometimes not)], meaning is often obscured by simple grammatical confusion. “That’s not what I meant” is emblematic of digital miscommunication, and can escalate a problem quickly. Re-read your emails before sending, and make sure your intended message is being conveyed clearly.

3. Consider emoticons. Until keyboards can actually perceive the emotional content of our digital messages (not so far off!), emoticons may be the simplest method of clarifying tone. … let go of [the] … perception that emoticons are silly. They may currently be our best tool for elevating the emotional clarity of digital messages.

4. Use phrasing that suggests optionality. Email is not a great medium for delivering criticism, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If you want your message to be well-received, try using phrasing that empowers the receiver. Questions in particular tend to be better received than declaratives (which can seem accusatory). If you’ve noticed a team member overlooked a task, you might email them: “Are you planning to take care of that issue?” Rather than making them feel put upon, you give them agency. [Mind you, a severe questioning tone can be even more detrimental than a direct statement of fact (as long as that statement is phrased “nicely”).  The message here is to think very carefully as to the appropriate phrasing for the situation at hand.]

5. Start things off on the right foot. When the news is mixed, consider leading off your message with an expression of appreciation. Then follow with the meat of your response. It could be something as simple as, “We’re off to a great start, I just have a few small tweaks I want to suggest.” Such gestures may seem like fluff, but they set the tone. Effectively saying “I appreciate the work you’ve already done…” prior to bringing the feedback that means “back to the drawing board!” [And then follow up the “meat” of the email with another statement of praise or appreciation.  If possible, different from the one which started the email.  Make the praise and appreciation sincere – not a “cardboard facsimile” of emotion (that will just inflame the situation).].

6. Jettison email… maybe. Ask yourself, “Is email the best carrier of this message?” Often a more social communication tool such as an internal project management space or messaging tool (Yammer, Action Method, or Mavenlink) can be more appropriate and serve as an emotional buffer. Reactive communication tends to be more measured in a public digital space. Plus an added bonus: knowledge sharing. [Except, be very very careful about posting any direct one-on-one and personal feedback and communication on social sites.  Social sites, and especially short message sites, suffer from the same problems as email, sometimes even more so – because they will typically be read by many more people, and probably read by people who do not have the same context surrounding the situation as maybe the two individuals involved in the email.  There are many situations where what appeared to be a simple communication on a shared social site was badly misinterpreted and caused “all-out warfare” on a project.  Finally, don’t forget that digital communication is the only means of communicating.  The telephone still works.  And so do face-to-face meetings (although,m it is admitted, that with today’s global business, face-to-face meetings may be rather too expensive or not even possible).  Make sure you keep the NLP Presupposition always in mind: “We are always communicating, in all channels”.  Think of the means of communication that would be best for the purposes, before attempting the communication.].

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Because of the lack of emotional tone in emails, we often have to go the extra mile to convey a solicitous attitude  – whether it’s rewriting a sentence, adding an emoticon, or offsetting bad news with a positive remark.  Even if it seems a chore, it’s time well spent.

In the immortal words of a recent 99% commenter: Don’t treat others like a “DO IT” button, treat them like human beings.

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