About once a year, I write a letter. Yes, an actual letter, printed on paper, folded and inserted into an envelope, addressed, stamped and slipped into a mailbox. I bet you didn’t think anyone did that anymore. I write this annual letter to my longtime friend, Kate, whom I picture on the receiving end in her living room in Manhattan with my letter in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other. Afterwards, Kate replies in kind, and then on my end, I do the same–living room, couch, glass of wine.
That’s not exactly the way we read email, curled up on the couch to savor the message, but it’s nice once a year to indulge in this old-fashioned way of connecting.
One thing Kate and I know as we sit down to each other’s letters is that things written about in the letters have already changed. There’s a time lag, of course, between writing and receiving that we automatically take into account, knowing that whatever was top of mind at the time it was written is not top of mind at the time it’s read. That doesn’t change the significance of the message, just the urgency.
Email Means Now
But with email there’s often a different expectation on the part of readers. Email, unlike snail mail, is immediate. Hit SEND, and seconds later it gets where it’s going. No delay. If you happen to open and read it the moment it arrives, you’re reading what the writer was just thinking. But even if you read it later, it somehow seems like fresh news — because it’s email.
If you write emails (and who doesn’t?) this is an important thing to keep in mind. Email implies now.
So if you write an email when you’re annoyed, discouraged, or frustrated, the recipient may very well assume you still are. They won’t check to see how many hours or days ago you wrote it and assume you’ve mellowed.
You may have heard this advice before: if you write an angry email, don’t send it, not until you’ve had time to read it again (and maybe again) when you’ve cooled off. And that’s one reason why. You may have gotten over it and moved on an hour later, two days later, but your reader will take it as fresh. That advice applies not only to angry emails but also to emails that criticize, or that express impatience or righteous indignation. Put it aside. Read it over later. Seriously reconsider.
Remember, too, that email is a terrible way for most people to communicate anything that’s even slightly emotional. The greatest writers of all times struggle to accurately represent emotions in words. What hope do the rest of us have?
From time to time, you may be tempted to insert friendly little digital faces to offset your bad news or mood.
You sent your input for the project status update late so I wasn’t able to include it.
Next time, send it early or I’ll have to leave you out again.
We are unable to include the fixes you have requested in the upcoming release. Sorry.
If these are submitted during the design phase in the future, we may be able to accommodate some or all but because you requested them too late in the release cycle, we have to exclude them.
If the idea is to soften the blow, it’s not working. Instead they look silly. Or snide. Or “incompetent,” as a recent study by Ben Gurion University professor Dr. Ella Glikson (and others) attests, according to Business Insider. Researchers studied business participants from twenty-nine different countries and found that using smiley emojis makes readers think the senders lack competence. Nor do emojis “increase perceptions of warmth.” In other words, smileys aren’t smiles.
Another interesting tidbit from this study was that those who replied to smiley emails were less likely to share information with smiley senders than with senders of unadorned emails. And, when the reader didn’t know the sender’s gender, the reader was more likely to assume that smiley emails came from women.
So it doesn’t sound like emojis have made it into the workplace yet, and they may never.
Conveying Sentiments and Mindsets
So if you can’t use smiley faces and other two-dimensional mini-pix to convey how you feel, and if you have to guard against your reader overreacting to your unsettled state of mind, how can you convey urgency, dissatisfaction or similar sentiments?
For starters, it’s often a good idea to temper your irritation and resist expressing things like frustration, especially when others assume (rightly or wrongly) that it’s aimed at them.
Here are some suggestions for softening the blow, when you need to land a blow.
1. Use passive voice.
Passive voice is when you move the do-er (grammatically known as the subject) in the sentence out of first position.
Active voice: A mosquito bit me.
Passive voice: I was bitten by a mosquito.
Putting the mosquito later in the sentence puts the focus on me, as the one bitten, rather than on the mosquito, as the biter.
Active voice: You committed to completing your deliverable by Friday.
Passive voice: I think it was understood that your deliverable would be done by Friday.
Notice it was further softened by “I think,” suggesting that everyone understood it, even though the writer isn’t altogether sure that’s the case. It’s intentionally tentative, more polite, leaving the criticized reader a little room to maneuver.
Active voice: You agreed to pay the full amount. So far, you have not done so.
Passive voice: It was our agreement that you would pay the full amount. So far, the full amount has not been received.
Of course, you may wish to be direct and let the chips fall, in which case use active voice. But this is an option when you’d like to go easy.
2. Change Declarations to Continuous
Sorry, I don’t mean to get too grammary, but there is a tense called the “past continuous” which looks like this:
They were watching the news clip when the earthquake hit.
I was working on my status report when you called.
I was thinking about asking you do to that, if it’s okay.
This tense expresses an action that was going on over a period of time in the past. The usefulness of this tidbit of grammar knowledge is that you can use this tense to take the edge off a declaration. Like this:
Declaration: I plan to schedule a project update meeting.
Continuous: I was planning to schedule a project update meeting.
The continuous version implies that “I was planning … if it’s okay” whereas the first one says “…whether it’s okay or not.”
Declaration: Call the vendor and tell him he wasn’t selected for the project.
Continuous: I was hoping you would call the vendor and tell him he wasn’t selected.
It’s that little “was hoping” that takes makes the message less blunt.
And you thought knowing grammar wasn’t practical! (I’m tempted to put an emoji here, but not if it means you won’t take me seriously!)
3. Use Positive Questions, Not Negative Ones
There’s a difference between these.
Negative: Aren’t we going to respond to this RFP?
Positive: Are we going to respond to this RFP?
The first one is impatient. It more or less suggests that it’s unthinkable we wouldn’t respond. The second asks, without a preconceived notion, whether we’ll respond.
Negative: Won’t we raise our prices in January? We usually do!
Positive: Will we raise our prices in January? We have done so in the past.
Hear the difference?
Soften or Let ‘Er Rip: Your Choice
There’s no rule that says you have to temper your tone. You may want to lay it on the line. But this is an era when people seem to react quickly, and often not positively. We zoom to differences of opinion as if we’re on autopilot. It’s a state of being that isn’t particularly pleasant (and we could change it if we wanted to, oh by the way, just by changing it). But it does seem to be the norm.
So, when you’re sitting down to send off an irate email, consider that the effect of it may be to put your reader off, not catapult them into action.
And adding an emoji will only make things worse.
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Her new novel, Speaking English with My Father, is available now. Find more of her Cogent Communicator columns here.