Email Etiquette: Did you hear that?

We’ve all been there. An email arrives and as you start to read, you suddenly start to wonder if you are hearing something else in the message. Maybe it’s a word that they used. Maybe it’s a word that they didn’t. Maybe it’s too short or feels too long. Maybe it is even a tone… or a vibe. That’s when that sinking feeling becomes something more… did that email had attitude? Now, they didn’t complain outright. They weren’t critical or specific, but it was something about how they said it… And that is when things take a sharp turn. Because we didn’t actually read just the email that arrived in our inbox; we thought we read a whole lot more.

The problem is, we didn’t just read the email. In all actuality, we read a lot more about the email through context with, through, and around that person, that situation or even our own state of being in that moment. We read the last conversation we had with that person or the story we heard about them from another co-worker. We heard the morning traffic that is still under our skin or the poor night’s sleep we had the night before. We heard a whole lot more than what was actually in the email. We may have read a whole lot more than was even about the sender.

Now, is it possible that an email was sent to us with a tone or vibe? Sure. As often as we’ve been guilty about thinking we read them we have been guilty of sending a couple… But more often than not, we’re still inviting more to the party ourselves. So, how do we combat the urge to fire off a response that leaves much less doubt to our current vibe?

  • Neutralize your perspective

When I start to get a feeling that an email is coming at me with a negative tone, I neutralize my perspective. Stated simply, I strip away the emotion. What is the main point of the email? What is the context? What is the ask? Can I accommodate or meet the ask? Suddenly the tone is far less important than what is expected of me as a response.

  • Ask questions before you make assumptions

Curiosity is one of my favorite attributes in others. It is pretty easy to fill in gaps of information with inference and with biased opinions… none of which make us of actual facts. Not only can we avoid unnecessary conflict, we can potentially learn something in the process. Double bonus!

  • Acknowledge the nonverbal

It has been reported that nonverbals can be up to 93% of communication between people. That statistic is widely debated, but even if we break it into a 50/50 you’re still missing half of the story. By design, email does not give you the benefit of half of what is being said/unsaid. Make sure you factor that into your response.

  • Step away from the keyboard

I have a rule with my team. If an email has gone back and forth three times, it’s time to meet face to face (if possible). If face to face isn’t possible, the phone is a good substitute. The point is, take the mystery out of the one-way dialogue and have a conversation.

  • Shake it off

Even if what you read did deliver a bit of a punch, remember that the person sending the email is likely bringing as many visitors to the party as you are as the reader. It’s likely not nearly about you as it seems…

Email is a necessary part of how we communicate with each other. (Don’t even get me started about texting.) We dissect what is said, not said, how it is said, and how much of it is said. Do yourself a favor and take a moment to read what is (and isn’t) between the lines.



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