Email tone

*Mean People drawings by Myles (l) and Alice (r).

I know we’ve all had interactions over email that leave us scratching our heads and asking, “Why is that person so snippy with me?”

Sometimes it’s a conclusion we reach because of a one-word, uncapitalized, unpunctuated answer to a question or message that we feel deserves more. And sometimes it just boils down to our interpretation of tone that may or may not be on target.

I had two experiences like that this week. The first was a quick “thanks” that made me interpret: “Why are you emailing me? Go away.”

The second, which happened today, was when I got an answer to a question I sent a company. The CSR’s answer was obviously copied and pasted from the web site FAQs (I know this because the top said “Frequently Asked Questions”). I read this between the lines: “Lady, why do you keep emailing us when you could just go to our site? You’re annoying our whole department, you’re lazy, and now we’re all talking about you.”

In the past, I’ve also gotten messages that I misunderstand completely at first glance, but after combing through it like a handwriting analyst might, rereading it over and over, I found it really wasn’t bad at all. That makes me feel like I’m truly a little crazy, but it happens.

Now, I might be overly sensitive (people who know me well are saying sarcastically, “No, you?”). But I’m certainly not the only one who has felt this way.

In an article in Psychology Today, David F. Swink writes that when communicating in person, we have the element of “physical climate,” as well as an emotional one. We look at facial expressions, body language, etc., and get a feel for the person, in addition to their actual words. In other words, it gives us more context.

Most interesting to me is that we remember the tone of an interaction more than we remember the words, and that goes for in-person communication, as well as electronic.

I have a much easier time accurately assessing the tone of an email from someone I know outside of cyberspace – for better or worse – and that’s probably true for all of us. It’s clear that e-communication is hugely dependent on the biases we hold.

At any rate, if questionable e-tones has taught me anything, it’s that:

  • a thick skin can serve me well when it comes to electronic interactions,
  • I should never send an email response when I’m feeling defensive about tone, and
  • that I should be sensitive to tone when composing emails, especially to people I don’t know well.

By being “sensitive,” I don’t mean being too nice. “No problem (happy emoticon)!!!” comes to mind. The three exclamation points is overkill, even if the sender is an excruciatingly bubbly  person.

Have a great weekend!

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