MOST PEOPLE KNOW THAT IT'S really easy
to be misunderstood in e-mail. You know, you say something meant
to be funny, but the other person thinks you're serious. Or you
write something innocent, and the receiver "reads into"
the message anger, frustration, ridicule or worse.
The reasons are well known: People treat
e-mail like face-to-face communication. We're used to saying
things out loud and having our intentions, mood and demeanor
correctly interpreted by the person we're speaking with. But
when you strip away facial cues, social context, tone of voice
and other information, people can easily misunderstand.
Research tells us that both sender and
receiver tend to automatically fill in the "tone" of
an e-mail conversation but they're not getting information
about the tone from the e-mail itself. They're basically making
it up based on how they feel or what they fear, not what's actually
Unfortunately, just knowing all that won't
necessarily prevent you from being misunderstood. Researchers
Michael Morris and Jeff Lowenstein were collaborating recently
on a research project to study the phenomenon of misunderstood
e-mails when they got into a huge argument because one had misunderstood
the e-mail of the other. It can happen to anyone, no matter how
Studies have shown that some 44 percent
of e-mails are incorrectly interpreted in some way by the receiver
of the message.
Here's the worst part: Most of these e-mails
go unchallenged. You might be angering people, bruising egos
or burning bridges and you'll never even know it.
Here are my best tips for making sure you
don't accidentally annoy, anger or intimidate the people you
communicate with over e-mail.
* If you're joking or being sarcastic,
use surrogate facial cues like smiley faces : )
or type "[grin]" or use some other indicator of your
intent. They seem trivial, but are very important.
* Use plentiful qualifiers such as "don't
take this the wrong way," "I'm joking," or "I'm
not angry at all."
* Beware of brief e-mails, as they can
be interpreted as brusque. An e-mail with just a word or two
can be interpreted as frosty, angry or demeaning.
* Start the e-mail with something obviously
humorous, which conveys that you're not angry.
* Be aware of who you're talking to. It's
very easy for a co-worker or subordinate at work to read anger,
disappointment or other negative emotions into your notes. If
you're a manager, you need to go out of your way to send friendly
e-mails or you'll end up with a morale problem. In-laws and relatives
might be easily offended as well.
* End your e-mail with something nice,
such as "thank you!" or "hey, I really appreciate
* Always re-read your e-mails before sending
and be on the lookout for areas of misinterpretation.
* Don't get angry from e-mail, then reply
based on your anger. First find out the intent of the sender
by calling, or asking for clarification. Remember: nearly half
of all e-mails are misinterpreted.
* Don't use e-mail for emotional or sensitive
topics. Pick up the phone or visit in person.
* Bonus tip: Be aware that if you're talking
about someone, you're more likely to accidentally send that person
the e-mail. Make sure you address e-mail to the right person,
especially if you're talking about a third party.
So there you have it: My best tips for
keeping the peace on e-mail. After all, you're sending messages
in order to communicate, not miscommunicate. It's an art form
that, once mastered, will serve you well for the rest of your