email target training

Getting the tone right in your emails – part 1

Email remains the most pervasive form of communication in the business world. Yet a recent study discovered that 64% of professionals feel that email has caused tension, confusion, or other negative consequences for them and their colleagues. Much of this tension and confusion comes from the way an email “sounds” to the reader – in other words, the tone of the email. However getting the tone right in an email is one of the hardest things to do – and if you’re writing in a foreign language it’s even harder. So what’s the problem exactly?

The biggest problem with emails

When we talk to each other, we subconsciously rely on valuable non-verbal information like facial expression, body posture, gestures, and voice tone to interpret and predict other people’s behavior. If you are communicating via email, this non-verbal information is missing. Without these important non-verbal cues, we fill in the blanks when we aren’t sure what the person sending the message intended. Strangely enough, we generally don’t fill in the blanks with positive intentions. In fact studies show that the majority of us do tend to assume negative intentions. This can lead to misunderstanding, frustration, damaged relationships, and poor business decisions.

Scary, isn’t it?

Writing emails that people read: Free eBook download

I didn’t mean it that way – 4 simple steps to minimize this

More often than not you are writing your email and hoping that the reader will understand it in the same way you meant it. If you still doubt this, just take a few moments – have you ever had a situation where the writer tells you they “didn’t mean it that way”? Have you ever thought or said this?

Accept that emails always have a “tone”

Your reader will remember the emotional tone of an email much longer and more vividly than the content. Now with this in mind…

Consider that your reader may not be in the same mood or emotional state as you

Try to think about how the reader could interpret your email. If you think there’s a chance your intentions or emotions could be misunderstood, find a less ambiguous way to phrase your words. Then rewrite any sentences which you think may be potential problems – or, even better….

Know when to pick up the phone or meet face-to-face

If an email is likely to raise emotions the don’t email. Face-to-face or at least phone contact is far better (unless you are consciously hiding behind your screen).

And finally…give the sender the benefit of the doubt

This is especially important if one of you is working in a foreign language

More on emailing

Next week we’ll look at 8 practical tips for hitting the right tone when writing your emails. In the meantime, you can find lots more emailing tips on our blog. There’s also our latest Ebook for you to download.

2 replies
  1. Gary
    Gary says:

    Absolutely. So many of my participants’ most important English communication takes place via email. And nearly always the challenge is not as much about the “grammar” as it is about the tone or choosing the “appropriate phrase.”

    For me the most important tip here is the first one: People often believe written correspondence doesn’t have a tone but that’s not true; it does. However, tone is not only set by the writer but is also interpreted by the reader, so it’s important to have an understanding of what the reader will respond to. It’s possible those two understandings will be very different.

  2. Gerhard
    Gerhard says:

    In my view email-content is always tricky. Firstly you have to be aware that your words may not transport your ideas and emotions properly. In most cases they don’t. And secondly you never know in what mood the reader is: Is he in a desperate mood or a energetic mood or in a hurry and so on? This second point is what we all tend to forget..
    Some people think emails are mainly for passing data/schedules and so on to the reader. Maybe they are right.

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