We've come a long way since email was first invented.
In fact, did you know that the first email was sent in 1971? That's right, we've been using email for nearly 50 years now! So, you'd think we'd be old pros at writing effective emails by now, right? Wrong!
According to a survey by Sendmail in 2013, 64 percent of respondents revealed that they had sent or received an email at work that had unintentionally caused anger or resentment.
Now, when I first read that stat, I was slightly shocked. But my surprise soon wore off. And, after thinking about it for a while, I realized that it actually made perfect sense. Over the years, I've received countless electronic messages, from email to text to IMs, from people (and most probably sent them, too, unfortunately) that have confused me or that I've misinterpreted in some way or another.
A simple joke or a sarcastic remark sent electronically, which I thought would be sure to delight the recipient and most probably would have done if delivered in person, has left people confused or hurt, and me red-faced.
One of the worst examples of poor email etiquette I remember was between two former colleagues. Let's call them Georgia and Bernard.
Bernard had emailed Georgia some feedback on a report that she'd written (so far, so good, as that was Bernard's job). It was quite extensive, which, again, was not abnormal. However, his language was slightly more direct than it needed to be. In fact, the whole message was a list of highly critical comments. Some of these were unnecessary and rude, or seemed pointedly personal. To top it off, Bernard failed to sign off with a "thanks," nor did he say "please." Instead, he simply ended with, "When can I expect these amends back?"
Some of you might be thinking, "Well, what's wrong with that? He was only doing his job after all."
But it hit a nerve with Georgia, whose inner email monster reared its ugly head. So, she quickly typed out a rude response and sent it to Bernard.
The matter escalated and the team manager was called in to mitigate the situation. A situation that had, ultimately, been blown out of all proportion. All because of the way an email had been written.
So what is it about emails, and indeed all forms of digital communication, that leaves so much room for misinterpretation?
Well, first and foremost it's the complete lack of a "human touch."
An electronic message can't smile at you, or give a wink when it's telling a joke. It has a complete lack of empathy. And, although there are any number of weird and wacky emoticons you can choose from to express body language, these are not well suited to professional or corporate environments.
It can be difficult to "strike the right tone" in an email. Especially if you're sending a message to a new starter or someone you don't know.
At the same time, tone needs to be adapted according to the person you're emailing. You wouldn't, for instance, add a kiss at the bottom of a message sent to your boss but you might do when you send one to a friend or family member. For some of us, adapting our writing style can be particularly difficult.
In fact, this problem has become so troubling that there are now apps out there that can help people to adapt their email writing style to suit their recipient's personality. One such app – released in 2015 – is Crystal, which works by using your contacts' online data to help you to shape communications according to their likes and dislikes.
Now, this might sound a bit Orwellian, not to mention counter-intuitive (using a computer program to add the "human touch" to an email?), but the app is only doing what any app aims to do – fill a gap in the market and resolve a common problem.
So, aside from getting an app to write our emails for us, what can we do to ensure that our messages are received and read by people in the way that we intended them to be? You can get some useful tips in our new infographic, How to Write Effective Emails.
And if you have any email anecdotes of the email monsters you've encountered or tips that you want to share, please do so in the comments section below.
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