5 ways to avoid email misinterpretations

July 29, 2018
7 minute read
Last updated August 10, 2018

Text, email, Facebook Messenger, heck, let’s even throw snail mail in there—nowadays, there are a ton of ways to communicate with our peers without having to interact face to face. And because of the ease and convenience, we have become dependent on these tools as our first form of communication. The problem is, the written word and the spoken word can give off very different messages, especially through email. And this disconnect between what is typed and what is meant can cause unnecessary conflict.

Before sending that email to your boss or coworker, stop and think about these five things before communication spirals out of control.

1. Be a wordsmith

Experts agree that on average email should only be five sentences long. If we follow this rule of thumb, anything longer warrants a trip to your coworker’s desk or venturing over to your manager’s office.

Emails that could be mistaken for novels, bullet points scattered throughout, entire paragraphs highlighted, etc.—this is exactly the type of communication that causes miscommunication. No one wants to read your novel of an email, and because of the length, people skim, and because they skim, they are missing the point of your message.

Keep your messaging clear and concise. Laura Vanderkam’s article for Fast Company, “5 Ways To Avoid A Massive Email Misunderstanding, talks about the use of redundant words or phrases often seen in email, like, “please don’t hesitate to contact me” or “attached please find”. Just get to the point! Opt for a quick synopsis, sum it up, and schedule time to chat (in person) to get to the finer details of what you’re trying to say.

2. To emoji or not emoji? 🤔

I had a manager who would end every email with an emoji. It was as if she was trying to soften the blow after a three-paragraph rant by throwing a blushing smiley face at the end.

In case you’re new to the emoji game, every emoji actually has a meaning. And what makes it even more complicated, is your age group, gender, and relationship status with the person will determine the emoji’s meaning.

So, to emoji or not emoji? Save the hugging face and smiley with tears for your work buddy and stick to the professional side of things for coworkers and managers. Think about it—at the end of the day, does your message about confirming a meeting or sending over that expense report really need an overly enthusiastic ideogram? 

Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

3. Put yourself in their shoes

There’s an old quote my mom always reminds me of—be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.

At the end of the day, Bob in accounting and Alice in marketing are humans. To you, they may be a means to an end, someone you need to get something out of in order to get on with your day. But Bob is a dad who hasn’t slept in three days because of his sick infant and Alice is taking care of her Dementia-ridden mother. I don’t mean to get dark, but the point I’m trying to make is that your long-winded email could be the trigger that sends someone’s rough week into even greater hell.

David F. Swink, co-founder and chief creative officer for strategic interactions, made this point in his piece for Psychology Today, “Don’t Type at Me Like That! Email and Emotions.” 

In a conversation, there is a physical climate as well as a psychological climate. When you are co-located with the person with whom you are speaking, you are sharing the same physical climate. You are in the same physical space pretty much experiencing the same environment. However, you can share the same physical climate with a person and be in very different psychological climates. Your life may be fairly stress-free at the moment, while the person with whom you are communicating may be operating with tight deadlines and a host of personal problems. When you are co-located, you are more likely to recognize and respond to the psychological climate of the person as compared to when you can’t see or hear them. (Swink, Psychology Today)

Simply walk over to your colleague and explain yourself face-to-face.

Before hitting send, consider how Alice or Bob will interpret your words. Consider the person, what you know about them and their current situation, and then compose your thoughts.

4. Exclamation overload

In elementary school we learned that an exclamation point is a punctuation marker used to indicate some sort of strong feeling. Wikipedia identifies it as an exclamation of high volume or shouting used to show emphasis.

So, where do these punctuation marks come into play in business correspondence?

…Exclamation points in professional communications are a different matter,” said Michael Adams, English professor at Indiana University and an expert in slang and internet jargon. In Medium article “Exclamation Points Work Emails Are Infantile and We Should Stop Using Them” Adams explains that “there’s a casualness and familiarity to [exclamation points] that strikes certain professionals (i.e., me) as off-putting — kind of like those presumptuous maniacs who want to hug instead of shaking hands.”

My tip, gauge the initial message and the individual, and let them set the stage. Reciprocate your message with equal enthusiasm, whether that be with exclamation points or not. But avoid the double exclamation…nothing in business is that funny.

“The next time you get nervous about sounding like a d@*k in email, but don’t want to send an overly-aggressive exclamation point either,” says John McDermott in the same Medium article, “simply walk over to your colleague and explain yourself face-to-face. They’ll probably think you’re a psychopath for doing so, and maybe crack a lame joke out of nervousness. That’s when you can let out a fake ‘haha!’ in person.”

5. STOP SHOUTING

There’s no mistaking this one. When writing any sort of correspondence, writing in all caps means one thing…SHOUTING. Use these in your messages and I’m sure you’ve noticed the negative response in return. It makes sense—we are not interacting face-to-face when sending a message, so the reader can’t get the full effect of your emotions, so rather than heading to their desk to unleash your wrath but still get what you are trying to emphasize across, you hide behind the keyboard and let the caps lock roll.

Believe it or not, shouty capitals have been used in communication way before the keyboard came around. Professor Paul Luna, director of the department of typography and graphic communication at the UK’s University of Reading, told The New Republic in “How Capital Letters Became Internet Code for Yelling that we’ve been using caps to convey “grandeur,” “pomposity,” or “aesthetic seriousness” for thousands of years. Roman emperors even had monuments inscribed in all caps.

But there are other ways to emphasize your point within your email. “Choose instead to use italics or bold to set off text for emphasis,” says Heinz Tschabitscher in his article for Livewire “Writing in All Caps Comes Across As Shouting.

Email can’t be avoided. But you can push yourself to have those face-to-face conversations more. 

Before sending that email, think to yourself, can I connect with this person in another way before hitting send?