Though social media has diminished its use in other ways, email is still a crucial communication tool in the business world. According to a recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, the average office-based employee spends as much as a quarter of their day reading and responding to email. With everyone spending so much time on email, it may be easy to think that one has mastered the art of email writing.
However, email is a surprisingly difficult communication medium. It offers neither the visual and auditory cues that make face-to-face or phone interaction more pleasant, or the ability to clarify in real time. A study by Professor of Management Kristin Byron at Syracuse University found that email recipients consistently interpreted messages as more negative than their senders intended. Positive email messages are interpreted as neutral, and neutral email messages are interpreted as negative. Misunderstandings can easily escalate into genuinely tense situations.
With this in mind, there are a number of ways you can make your email communication more pleasant. Be aware of the negativity bias; if your email is meant to be positive, don’t be afraid to make it obvious. You have to work to infuse positive emotion into your emails.
Make requests in ways that empower, rather than diminish, the recipient. Can you think of situations where leading questions are more effective than direct orders? If criticism is necessary, try to “sandwich” it between commendation or positive dialogue.
It’s important to pay attention to grammar. When email first became popular, it was considered quick and ephemeral compared to “snail mail.” However, it stays for as long as the recipient keeps it, and it takes much longer to correct or clarify than it would over the phone or in person. Therefore, it’s important to eliminate any potential ambiguities in your emails. It may take several revisions to ensure that your message is clear.
You might even consider whether email is the right venue for what you’re trying to communicate. If your intended recipient can be contacted by phone or through social media, ask yourself whether you could convey the message more naturally through these channels.
Email is a common, yet often misunderstood form of communication. With these tips in mind, you can be confident that your emails deliver the image you want to portray.
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Published on January 29, 2013