When email and chat replaced phones and faxing, businesses embraced the prospect of greater efficiency. What no one foresaw was how digital communication could muddy meanings, and even inadvertently give offense.
With email, we don’t get eye contact—which, research has shown, plays a critical role in developing empathy—and we can’t judge meaning via tone of voice or body language.
”There are often problems with one-way communication,” says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and author of Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work. “It can lead to conflict because the person you’re communicating to is not right there, so you can’t see how they’re receiving it or whether something strikes them the wrong way.” Perceived rudeness has a ripple effect, leading to unhappy customers or partners, a bad work culture and loss of productivity, according to one long-term study.
Of course, none of this means we’re going to give up the convenience and speed of business email and chat. What we can do is sidestep some common landmines.
One person’s “hope you’re well” is another person’s “get to the point.” “Some people think a salutation and signoff are necessary; others want to just jump right in and end with their initials, if anything,” Tannen says. “Try to be attuned to how the other person is using email. Quite a few people, and I’m one of them, will mirror the style of the other person.” You may feel that you’re behaving in a way that’s not natural to you, but it can be part of a good-faith effort to see things as your business contact does.
Ditch the smiley face. A recent study by Israeli and Dutch universities found that emoticons in work-related emails conveyed incompetence, rather than warmth, to recipients.
Play it straight with punctuation. It can lead to misunderstanding between generations and between genders. Take the ellipsis (dot-dot-dot). “Older people tend to use it to mean ‘and so on and so forth.’ For younger people, it undercuts whatever was just said,” Tannen explains. Similarly, a period at the end of a line can come across as angry to younger people, because it is seldom used in their preferred method of communication—texting.
Other punctuation pitfalls to avoid include all capital letters, exclamation points and repetition (e.g., “so, so, so sorry”). “Women often use these in communication with each other, so that when they don’t use it, they fear coming off as angry or reserved,” Tannen says. Women also may be using these tactics to avoid appearing overly assertive, Tannen notes—a classic double-bind in a workplace that expects women to be both authoritative and self-effacing.
Suggest a call. “If it’s an issue that’s going to require more than three back-and-forths, it’s better to get on the phone and settle it,” says Tannen. “When you send off an email and move onto something else, then get an answer and have to stop what you were doing and go back to that—it’s wearying. Better decisions can be made as a result of discussion.”
Even better, try to set up a video chat—or an in-person meeting. Recent research found that face-to-face requests are 34 times more effective than email requests.
Print this article