From my Fast Company blog:
In the modern workplace, we don’t actually talk to each other as much as we used to. Communication now often takes place via email, a change that has brought with it both convenience and its own unique set of challenges. One obvious problem is that conversation via email eliminates all the vocal and visual clues (e.g., volume, body language, facial expression) we normally use to convey subtleties of meaning that aren’t captured by the words themselves.
Sarcasm, exaggeration, and emotional tone can be completely lost, and misunderstandings are common. You can easily end up coming across in a way you never intended, and getting yourself in hot water with the email’s recipient. Most of us know this only too well.
What you probably don’t know is that there are subtle aspects of your emailing style that routinely influence the way your messages are perceived, in ways you may not have intended. Learn to identify your own style, and you can use that knowledge to your advantage.
As readers of email, we’ve all become adept over time – without even realizing it – at searching for clues to what a sender means beyond the words he or she uses. New research has identified three cues people use to make (largely unconscious) judgments about the sender’s motivation, mood, and status.
Cue #1: Errors
Mistakes in your writing – either grammatical or typographical (e.g., misspelling) – leave the reader with a very distinct impression: you don’t care. Errors are taken as a clear sign of apathy, and even disrespect. Sloppy emails leave people believing you can’t be bothered to do it right. They are the written equivalent of unabashedly yawning in someone’s face.
Tip: Unless you are actually trying to seem lazy, disrespectful or detached, errors are something you should go out of your way to avoid.
Cue # 2: First vs. Third Person Perspective
Compare the following sentences:
We decided at the meeting to postpone the sales event.
It was decided at the meeting that the sales event would be postponed.
The content of the two messages is exactly the same – only one is written in first person (“we”) while the other is written in the more formal, less personal third person style. Research shows that people often make two assumptions about you when you opt for the latter style: that you are not an “equal,” and that you are possibly a little ticked off.
Writing in the third person comes across as significantly more hostile than the friendlier, less formal first person. Third-person writing is also perceived to be more typical of a supervisor addressing a subordinate or vice versa – its formality suggests that either the sender or reader is in a position of power relative to the other.
Tip: If you want to send a subtle reminder to a subordinate about your authority, or just seem like you have more authority than you actually do, try keeping the “I,” “we,” and “us” out of your email message. This is also a good idea if you yourself are the subordinate – first person messages can seem less professional and respectful.
If, on the other hand, you are trying to put someone at ease (or assure them you are not angry), using “I” and “we” will probably do the trick.
Cue # 3: Exclamation Points!
Exclamation points in an email express much more than just your enthusiasm. Though you may not have intended it, they also tell the reader that you see them in a collegial, even chummy sort of way. Their informality and emotional emphasis suggests a relationship of friendship, rather than one of mere coworkers.
Tip: Using occasional exclamation points in emails may be a good strategy for making a difficult coworker more cooperative and generally well-disposed toward you. It’s a subtle way of saying, “Hey, I think of us as friends.”
To a supervisor, however, exclamation points may set a tone that seems overly familiar, and unprofessional. For your punctuation needs, stick to a simple period.