What I Meant to Say

“The single biggest problem in communication
is the illusion that it has occurred.” 
– G.B Shaw

From a literary perspective, “Tone” expresses the writer’s attitude toward, or feelings about, the subject matter or audience.  In the age of COVID we have all become authors; email has become an integral part of daily online life.  In 2020, roughly 306.4 billion emails were sent and received each day, and the figure is expected to increase to over 361.6 billion daily in 2024.  So let me ask you a question, when you prepare an email how much consideration do you give its tone?

Prior to COVID, misunderstandings were rampant in the workplace.  As a solution, Steven Covey suggested that during our interactions, we seek first to understand, and then be understood.  He developed this idea from the perspective of empathy, “You can’t understand someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes.”  This is wonderful advice and lends itself well to an environment in which communication primarily occurs through face-to-face interactions.  The challenge becomes incorporating it into our email.

Have you ever received one of those emails that you wanted to print just so you could crumple it up, throw it at the wall and say a few unkind things about its author?  Is it possible that you have written one that is similar?  When we converse it’s important that we seek to be understood.  That means prior to responding we consider what we have heard, what we know about the person with whom we are interacting, and then selecting words or phrases that not only accurately express our response/thoughts, but do so in a manner that facilitates sustained communication.  No less is true with our emails; we need to slow down, write carefully and then read our emails before sending them.

Today, much of the information we shared previously through personal conversation occurs via email. This means that listening in its traditional sense has been replaced by reading text on a screen, and this is where the problem begins.  According to American University linguist Naomi Brown, author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital Worldthe burden of emails has impacted how we read; we tend to skim and search for key takeaways.  In our haste to get through an email and move on to the next, we devote less time to comprehending what we are reading.   Likewise in our creation or response to emails.  Too often we hit that send button before re-reading, proofing, or simply considering tone.  The result is a poorly worded, terse or confusing email that results in misunderstandings. 

Erica Dhawan is founder and CEO of Cotential – a company that helps leaders and teams leverage 21st century collaborative skills.  Her soon to be published (May, ‘21) book, Digital Body Language is a guide to decoding the cues of digital communication that enable us to convey greater understanding and emotion on the job.  In the book she states, “Reading carefully is the new listening, and writing clearly is the new empathy.”  To this end she suggests we ask ourselves four questions before hitting that send button.

  1. Is my email too brief?  Today’s fast-paced environment often requires us to move at lightning speed and brush over details.  That speed, and its associated anxiety, too often compromises our commitment to accuracy, clarity, and respect.  When we slow down and reference details in our communications, it demonstrates we put in the time to thoroughly read  the other person’s ideas and thinking.  It shows respect!  
  2. What tone am I projecting?  Tone is conveyed through word choice, syntax, punctuation, letter case, sentence length, opening and closing.  More than anything else, it is the greatest tool we have for projecting empathy, so it is important to consider your recipient or audience.  Tone deficiencies can hurt morale and create confusion.  If you are having one of those days where you can’t give thoughtful attention to an email, send a quick reply acknowledging you received it, and let them know that you plan to respond to it at greater length as soon as possible.
  3. Did I proof this?  Always proofread emails before sending them. Too often, misinterpretation comes down to a dropped word or misleading punctuation. Take advantage of spell check and other proofreading programs.  Likewise, take a moment to consider the tone developed within the email?  If you received it, what emotions would it invoke?  Proofreading is both a habit and a skill; sending clean, unambiguous, and reader-friendly copy will help people take what you write more seriously.
  4. Would a conversation be better?  Too often we get caught-up in small emails.  Remember the phone still serves a purpose.  It forces us to engage in conversation, instead of asking one tiny question after the next.  It can also save lots of time and generate goodwill.  Likewise if you just received a vague or confusing text or email, don’t be afraid to request a phone conversation or, if possible, a video or in-person meeting to develop clarity.

When COVID passes we will once again communicate regularly in person, but our use of email will continue and most probably increase.  With this in mind, it is critical that our words convey a tone and clarity that opens doors and encourages sustained, constructive communication.

Embrace the Challenge