Imagine sending a detailed question to your boss and getting a one-word response: “No.”
Is she angry? Offended by your email? Or just very busy? When I conduct research with organizations on the topic of communication, one of the most common themes raised by both employees and managers is the challenge of trying to communicate emotional or sensitive issues over email. Email, of course, lacks most normal cues for relaying emotion, such as tone of voice and facial expressions.
But in many cases, using email is simply unavoidable. So how can you balance the need to communicate with avoiding the potential pitfalls of using emotion in email? Here are five concrete, research-based recommendations:
Understand what drives how emails are interpreted. It is clear that people often misinterpret emotion in email, but what drives the direction of the misinterpretation? For one, people infuse their emotional expectations into how they read messages, regardless of the sender’s actual intent. Consider the email “Good job on the current draft, but I think we can continue to improve it.” Coming from a peer, this email will seem very collaborative; coming from a supervisor, it may seem critical.
In addition to relative position (emails from people high in power tend to be perceived as more negative), there are other contextual factors to consider: The length of a relationship (emails from people we know well tend to be perceived as less negative), the emotional history of the relationship, and the individual’s personality (negative people tend to perceive messages as more negative).
The first step in avoiding miscommunication is to try to stand in the recipient’s shoes, and imagine how they are likely to interpret your message. Doing so can help you to prevent misunderstandings before they ever occur.
Mimic behaviors. What is the best way to convey emotions via email? Emoticons? Word choice? Exclamation points? There is no single correct answer; the proper cues will vary based on the context. For instance, you likely wouldn’t want to send a smiley face emoticon to a client organization that is known for having a very formal culture. Alternatively, you wouldn’t want to send an overly formal email to a very close colleague.
Further Reading: HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Emotional Intelligence
One strategy that has been found to be very effective across settings is to engage in behavioral mimicry (i.e., using emoticons, word-choice, and slang/jargon in a similar manner to the person with whom you are communicating). In a set of studies of American, Dutch, and Thai negotiators, using behavioral mimicry in the early stages of text-based chat negotiations increased individual outcomes by 30%. This process of mimicry increases trust because people tend to feel an affinity toward those who act similarly to them.
State your emotions. While mimicking behaviors can be effective, it is still a rather subtle strategy that leaves the potential for emotional ambiguity. The simplest solution to avoid any confusion is to just explicitly state the emotion that you want to relay in your email.
One excellent example of how this works comes from a media organization I recently worked with. I asked employees for an email that they felt was written very poorly, and one employee provided me with the following message from a manager:
The intro of the commercial needs to be redone. I’m sure that’s the client’s doing and you will handle it :). Warm Regards, [Manager’s Name].
To me as an outsider (and I’m guessing to the manager as well), this email seemed well-crafted to avoid offending the employee. However, the employee felt differently and explained: “She knows perfectly well that I made the terrible intro, and she was saying, well I’m sure the client made that segment and that you will tackle it, and then she put a little smiley face at the end. So overall, a condescendingly nasty tone.”
If the manager had avoided subtlety and stated her meaning directly, there might have been less room for interpretation. For example, what if she had stated:
I am very happy with your work so far. I think the intro could be improved, though; would you mind giving it another shot?
The employee would have had far less ambiguity to fill in with her own emotional expectations.
Yet people rarely state their intended emotions, even when the stakes are high. Research from NYU has shown that many people are overconfident in their ability to accurately relay emotions when it comes to email. It may seem obvious that a coworker who never takes sick days will realize a comment about them leaving early is humorous rather than serious. However, that coworker might be particularly concerned about being seen as lazy and will feel hurt or offended.
Consider making some strategic typos. While being explicit can increase the clarity of the emotion you wish to display, it does not mean that people will actually believe you are experiencing the emotion. Oftentimes, people intentionally display emotions that they may not be experiencing for strategic purposes. For instance, negotiators may feign anger to gain concessions, and salesmen may pretend to be excited to get sales (Do you really believe the salesman who states in his email that he is thrilled to meet you?). This approach also ended poorly for the manager in the media company example above.
Given that email makes it so easy to fake and edit emotional displays until they are “perfect,” how can you do more to make your emotions seem authentic?
The answer is to do something that makes it seem like you are not actually “crafting” your message. Counter to most business advice, in situations where authenticity is very important, it may be worthwhile to consider making a couple of typos. What makes errors so believable is that they make you seem less competent: Why would someone ever make a typo if they were trying to impress me?
Especially when you are high in power, making occasional minor errors can even help you to seem warmer and more approachable. There’s an important trade-off to consider here, however: Is it more important in the situation to seem more emotionally authentic (by making errors) or competent (by making no errors)?
Disclose personal information. One of the benefits of email is that it tends to result in more straightforward and productive work communication, avoiding the potentially unproductive schmoozing that tends to occur in face-to-face conversations. However, disclosing personal information while making small talk actually helps lubricate social interactions by building familiarity and trust. Studies that have examined email negotiations show that simply having people engage in a brief “getting to know each other” interaction prior to negotiating can significantly improve negotiation outcomes. So if your interactions are longer-term, limit misinterpretations and increase the believability of explicit emotional displays by letting a fuller version of yourself show through.
Given the constantly evolving nature of organizational communication, there is still a lot to learn about effective email use. However, there are some clear areas where we can improve. In reality, we all have the same flaw: We tend to be overly focused on ourselves and our own goals, while failing to amply account for other people’s perspectives. Using these methods for bridging your and your email recipient’s perspectives, through both increasing message clarity and building trust, will help you ensure effective communication.