By Sharine Sample

Recently I was in a meeting where the subject of email etiquette came up – specifically, how certain phrases in the email can trigger annoyance, frustration, or other negative emotions, which then affect your response to the sender.

I thought about emails that I have sent and received over the years, which prompted me to do a little research. It turns out that it’s very common for people to misunderstand the intent or meaning of an email.

In a face-to-face conversation, we can rely on body language and facial expression to help us understand what the other person means. Even with a phone conversation, we can tell a lot from the person’s tone of voice. But in an email, when you don’t have those verbal and non-verbal clues, some words and phrases can seem overly dominant, passive-aggressive, or rude.

Here are some commonly used phrases to watch out for in your emails, and what people often take them to mean:

  • Going forward…” How readers interpret it: “Don’t do it again.”
  • Per my last email…” – “You didn’t read my last email and you need to pay attention.”
  • For future reference…” – “I’ll go ahead and clean up your mistake this time, but please make an effort to remember this for later.”
  • FYI…” – “For your information. I want to make sure you are reading the whole email.”
  • Making sure we’re on the same page…” – “I’m covering myself, so I need to make sure you understand what I am saying and that I have it in writing.”
  • K.” “No.” “Yes.” – “I saw your email and I’m giving you a one-word response because I don’t have time to deal with you right now.”

Right now, you’re probably thinking of times when you’ve used these phrases. You may be thinking, “But that’s not what I meant!” Now that you know how easy it is to misread the meaning of these phrases, take a moment to rethink your wording.

While you cannot control others, you can take steps to ensure that you are always communicating professionally (…even if others may not). To avoid misunderstanding an email yourself, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Assume good intent. Many people think of email as an instant messaging tool and do not put a lot of thought into their word choice. When you get an email that feels negative or dismissive, do not read negative feelings into the words used. Instead, focus on the facts and do not make assumptions about what the sender means.
  • Put yourself in the sender’s shoes. Any negative feelings that you pick up on may stem from the sender’s current situation – overwhelmed with a big project, dealing with personal issues, or just too busy at that moment to think through their message. Even if an email is borderline rude, being able to empathize and let it slide shows character and professionalism on your part.
  • Check your emotions. Don’t respond to emails when you are frustrated or angry. Take time to cool off and mull your thoughts so you can respond appropriately and professionally. Leave out emotions and opinions. Refer back to my first tip – even if you read negative meaning into an email, respond to the words rather than to your interpretation of them. Remember, emails can be forwarded and read by people other than the person to whom you’re responding. If someone else sees your message, how will you come across?
  • Always respond. A professional response is always better than no response at all. Even if you need to wait a few hours to reply (or maybe even a day) the courteous thing to do is always respond. If nothing else, reply with “I received your email and I need to give it some thought before I respond.”

You can apply these tips to improve your email etiquette with anyone, not just co-workers. While you cannot anticipate every reaction to your emails, these tips will help ensure that you’re doing your part to minimize misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

Sharine Sample is the Regional Workforce Development Manager at Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina. Learn more about Goodwill’s employment services at www.goodwillnwnc.org.

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