The Trouble with Email


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

“I send out this simple, straight-forward email, then I get all this negative reaction. I don’t get it.”

Misconstrued Emails

Lawyers and law firm administrators that I coach report this to me a lot. Emails are informal and easy to send quickly, so we often zip them off without rereading them to see how they might sound to the reader. The recipients of the email then supply the tone of voice, cadence and volume to it, which can dramatically affect the tenor of the message.

We send out something like “Don’t forget to sign up by Tuesday!” In our minds we hear the polite, encouraging voice of a flight attendant on the intercom reminding us to keep our seatbelts fastened during the flight. Our reader, however, hears the edgy voice of an eighth grade math teacher admonishing an unruly class. If there is any history of friction or conflict between sender and reader (as frequently happens with opposing counsel, subordinates who have been “counseled” or partners in competition for firm resources), the reader may hear the threatening bark of a drill sergeant.

Why is that? Most of us can’t type as fast as we can speak, so we tend toward brevity and directness in our emails. Brevity in conversation often comes across as curt, disinterested, rude or commanding, unless we soften it with a cheery or concerned tone. In email, the reader inserts the tone themselves, and they often don’t supply the most cordial tone.

Tips for Avoiding Misunderstandings

To establish the intended tone in an email, we can either sacrifice brevity and become more formal, or adopt the extreme brevity and informality that teenagers use in text messaging. “When are you going to send the documents?” might sound abrasive and nagging in some circumstances. You can soften that by substituting “It would be helpful to know when we might expect to receive the documents.” Alternatively, a message that says “When r u sending docs?” is so abbreviated that the reader is now more likely to understand that the sender is just saving time, and not being curt. Readers are particularly likely to grant that extra bit of grace when the email obviously comes from a Blackberry or other PDA.

By the way, just in case you are not already aware of the little rules of email etiquette, upper case typing in email is the equivalent of raising the voice in person. In some circumstances colored fonts or bold face can also be interpreted that way. If you are a poor typist, it is better to type in all lower case than all upper case. That’s an accepted way to manage the challenge of sending messages using the little buttons on a PDA or when typing rapid fire to keep the conversation flowing in an online chat.

Please Don’t Make This Mistake

Some writers think their readers are unreasonably sensitive and just looking for something to complain about. “I said ‘Please’ for Pete’s sake!” they grumble. Unfortunately, however, in many circumstances the word “please” has become the signal that a command will follow, such as “Please keep off the grass” or “Please don’t touch.”
To avoid that implication, instead of “Please respond by Friday,” try going a little more formal as in one of the following:

“Kindly respond by Friday.”
“We would greatly appreciate a response by Friday.”
“Would you be so kind as to let us know your intentions by Friday?”

Email is No Substitute

I can’t talk about avoiding misunderstandings in emails without addressing one other issue. Today co-workers officing next door to each other often communicate by email. With email we can talk without having to make a real-time connection between two busy people. Such written correspondence also serves the valuable purpose of making it easy to track the communication and document agreements and instructions for future reference.

Unfortunately, however, people also use email to avoid direct confrontation in sticky situations. I coached a lawyer who was having difficulties with a co-worker in another department. My client was a likeable guy and his requests seemed reasonable in the situation, yet he experienced friction and resistance for weeks. I asked whether he had tried having a conversation with his co-worker to figure out the problem.

“I sent him an email,” he said.
“Is he in your building?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yes, he’s down one floor.”
“Are your legs broken?” I chided.

He held a face to face conversation that day and got the issue resolved.

When things are already testy, email communication has a high risk of exacerbating the situation. Save time and conflict by picking up the phone or meeting in person. If you need documentation of the understanding reached or the information communicated, you can send a confirming email afterwards.

Use More Personal Touch in Touchy Situations

In summary, email is a great time-saver in day-to-day situations. When communication has the potential to get touchy, however, we need to slow down and pay attention to the possible ways that our language might be misconstrued. We can save ourselves a lot of time in the long run by taking the extra steps necessary to make sure that the positive intent of our message comes through, whether by adjusting our language or picking up the phone.

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