How to come across as kind and sincere over email and avoid offending anyone
- Rosamond S. King is a Black writer, scholar, and associate professor in the English department of Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York.
- She explains that with the increased number of emails we're sending while working remotely, there are more chances for misunderstandings and even offense.
- With just a few compassionate words, it's possible to lessen that chance and to break any tension with our colleagues.
- Be brief and positive, and don't write things like "we're all in this together" — it's not true.
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Deaths, police violence, fear of the novel coronavirus, and world conflict are constantly in the news — and yet we're all still expected to function at work. If you're like me, privileged to work from home, then you're spending more time than ever on email.
How can we write professional emails that acknowledge the trauma everyone is experiencing? And why is the tone of our emails important right now?
It's safe to say many people are dealing with unusual levels of anxiety, grief, or both. For instance, I'm one of the one in three Black people who know someone who has died of Covid-19 and, like all African-Americans I know, several loved ones have suffered police harassment and violence. Countless others of every background are overwhelmed or exhausted by 24/7 childcare, loss of income, or pandemic fatigue.
Yet even in New York City, America's first coronavirus epicentre, many of my colleagues' emails sound like business as usual.
But even if they've been untouched by the events all over the news, nothing is — or should be — normal right now.
So when someone sends an email that begins with nothing more than "Hi," I don't get upset, but I do feel that they must be unaware of — and maybe don't care about — the realities I and millions of others are living with.
You might think that work emails should remain strictly professional. I agree. It's important to maintain boundaries. But kindness can generate more kindness and goodwill — never a bad thing in business.
Research has found that people regularly think work emails are more negative than the writer intends, and with the increased number of emails we're sending, there are more chances of conflict, misunderstandings, and offense. But with just a few compassionate words, we can lessen the chance or level of tension with our colleagues.
These suggestions acknowledge the complexity of our work and lives right now, without being inappropriate.
1. Think of a new opening and closing for your emails.
Just a few words can shift the tone of your messages to convey warmth and support. (The reverse is also true; a dashed off email might communicate a lack of concern for, or even hostility towards your colleagues.)
2. Be brief and positive.
If you haven't communicated with someone in a while, you might begin with "Dear Ellen, I hope you're doing as well as possible in these challenging times." You don't have to mention the pandemic or the protests by name to acknowledge the larger world.
3. Get to the point.
In the body of your email, state your purpose quickly. Since we're on email more than ever, most of us appreciate shorter messages.
4. End the way you began.
Keep the closing brief and positive. End your email a little more warmly than your usual "sincerely" or "best wishes." "Wishing you health and good spirits" or "Wishing you safety and peace" are good options. And a simple "Warmly" is enough if you don't know the person well and don't want to be too familiar.
Knowing what phrases to avoid is also important.
Don't write "We're all in this together." While this is a nice sentiment, it's not true — people of different races, those grieving a loved one, those living alone, and those living with families are all having different experiences and challenges.
Don't give orders. Closings such as "Stay safe" or "Wear a mask" can sound bossier than they're intended to.
Don't get too personal. Referring to "you and yours" is too personal — unless you know the person and their family well — and emphasizes division rather than community.
Don't try to be funny. It's almost always best to avoid humor in professional communication. Jokes can fall flat over email, especially because people's sense of what's funny can be very different.
Overall, remember that email conveys content more effectively than tone — so be nice and be clear.
Seventeen major companies have declared that employees can work from home long-term if they want to. The rest of us are likely to continue to spend more time working remotely than we had before 2020. Either way, email is going to remain a major part of our lives and work.
It's true that small phrases at the beginning and end of messages are just kind gestures — but emails with no kindness at all are also sending a message. It's a question of what kind of gesture you want to make.
Rosamond S. King is a critical and creative writer and associate professor in the English Department of Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York.
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