Got your email. Now I KNOW you are mad at me.

27/6/2016 |

SHoutTony is a detail man. He sent precise instructions to his boss via email on what to expect at an upcoming fundraiser – providing the schedule, dress code, even the menu and ended the message by asking if she was okay with the plans.

Her response:


She also included her auto” signature.

Tony wrestled for a week wondering why she must be mad at him and concluded that he was about to be fired; he even ducked every time he saw her coming. By the time the event took place, he was a mess and decided to clear the air with her.  His boss’s response was, “Huh?”

What do you think?

When his boss replied to Tony was she indicating:

  • Fine, i.e., “That’s great Tony, so great you deserve a raise”! or
  • Fine, i.e., “Way too much detail for me to read, but thanks” or
  • Fine, i.e. “Whatever…I’m too busy for this – go away”.

One only has to practice saying “fine” using five different tones of voice to understand the problem. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine.

What’s the challenge? Lack of body language and the inability to “hear” the tone. Without non-verbal clues, our imaginations fill in the blanks (some more than others) leading us down emotional rabbit trails and away from what the content of the message may truly portray.

The problem is made worse by the fact that most of us don’t realize that we’re at fault. In a 2005 study published by the American Psychological Association, people vastly overestimate how often the recipients of their messages received the intended tone. Senders estimated nearly 80 percent accuracy. In reality, recipients sensed the right tone only 56 percent of the time.

So how do you manage email tone? One solution is to use software that acts as a tone checker. It actually promises to review your email and give it a tone rating. But because productivity Ninjas pride themselves on being human, let’s stay with a human solution.

Tips to manage email tone

Email tone is conveyed through word choice, syntax, punctuation, letter case, sentence length, opening and closing, along with graphics like emoticons and emoji. Tone is also portrayed with the help of common sense:

Assess the relationship. If you know someone very well, you can relax and expect that even if you convey the wrong tone, they’ll understand. But use this approach cautiously, even with relatives!

Default to being a bit old fashioned. Email is communication tool which means it is about relationships. Use email to build and manage a relationship, not just to give instructions or information. Consider starting with a brief warm greeting such as; “trust you are well”, “hope you had a nice weekend,” and if appropriate, include “thank you” or “great to have your working on this”.

Be your own tone checker: If you think there is any chance of misinterpretation, pause before hitting send, save the email as a draft, re-read, have someone else review it. And if you are still unsure, PICK UP THE PHONE (oh, and never, ever use ALL CAPS unless you truly wish to be interpreted as SHOUTING!!)

Avoid Overuse of emojis: Apple and Google have different emoji’s, leading to a whole other area of misinterpretation. A smiley face can appear as a grumpy face when sent from one phone to another (and if you can’t trust a smiley face, what can you trust!)

Just be honest. If you feel that the email is awkward (like any conversation can be), just say, “Not sure I’m expressing this well ivia email, let’s talk/have coffee….”.

And on the receiving end of a message:

Keep calm and carry on. Resist the urge to interpret tone.  As in any human relationship, you can lose valuable time, energy and productivity looking for problems where none exist.


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