People manage email in different ways. Some of us use our Inbox as a task list, filing everything that does not need attention. Others use their Inbox as a storage site for any email that they may ever want to refer to again. You can imagine which group is better liked by IT departments across the globe.
We also have different standards for what is and is not acceptable from a usage or style perspective. Emails that disregard sentence capitalization, for example, opting to use only lower-case letters, may drive some readers bonkers. Others may be more troubled by email senders who elect to use an atrocious and distracting “stationery,” which translates roughly to a pale beige background with fuzzy gray dots arranged in a grid pattern on which it is impossible to read any text smaller than 24 pts in bold font.
But what about the content of our emails? There are tricky aspects of that, too, as many of us are all too well aware. Why is it that readers so often misinterpret messages as having a far more sinister or simply unfriendly intent?
Scott McDowell suggests some reasons in his post, Email Etiquette II: Why Emoticons (And Emotional Cues) Work. I’ve been seeing a lot of articles like this lately and am thoroughly convinced of the accuracy of their premise. In short, despite our attempts to sound conversational in email correspondence, the electronic nature of the exchange prevents an actual conversation from occurring. Without the chance to translate body language, intonation, and facial expressions, as we do so naturally during in –person conversations, we’re left to our own imaginations when putting emotions to the text we see on the screen.
And, as the post explains, if an email’s content is neutral (as many of us aim to achieve in our day-to-day business correspondence), he reader is more likely to assume that the tone is negative. This theory of “negativity bias,” which is credited to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, also holds that, when the email’s tone is positive, the reader interprets the tone as neutral, as Mike Maslanka previously explained.
So what’s a well-intended email author to do?
McDowell suggests an increased use emoticons. Admittedly, I use a lot of smiley faces in my casual correspondence. I know, I know, it’s not exactly the most lawyerly way to write an email but it does the trick. When used properly, the winking smiley face can lighten the tone of an otherwise serious-sounding sentence. But I don’t imagine that I ‘d use a smiley face or even a winking smiley in an email to a new client with whom I don’t already have a rapport or who doesn’t already know smiley-type personality.
Perhaps there’s an app waiting to be developed here—emoticons for the business environment. A little bow-tie wearing smiley face, maybe? Or maybe the smiley face could don a pair of wire-rimmed glasses, thus appearing both smart and friendly.
Until then, I’ll offer my own humble suggestion—not to to senders but to recipients. If you receive an email from a coworker or other person you generally consider to be on your side of the shooting range, and you have a moment of doubt about the tone or intention behind an email you receive, make an effort to start from the assumption that it’s positive or, at the very least, neutral. In other words, be consciously careful to avoid assuming that guy or girl down the hall has suddenly switched sides and is now a covert agent operating for the enemy.