Business Writing Essentials

Message Tone

This is going to seem ridiculous, but it's real. Trust me.

Here's the problem:

People reading emails can easily color your words with their current emotional state, simply because they are reading your words in isolation and have nothing else to guide them, such as your presence, your voice inflection, your facial expressions, and your body language.

It's unfortunate, but people can misread the tone in your email simply because they are in a bad mood.

Two guidelines can help:

Use contractions as your default style.

Consider the following simple statement in an email:

I do not want to plan another meeting.

Someone who reads this while they are having a bad day might read it as follows:

I do NOT want to plan another meeting.

And in their upset state of mind, they can view you as being fussy, or even sounding like a scolding parent, which can make them even more upset.

To help avoid this, use contractions:

I don't want to plan another meeting.


I am surprised you did not call.

This can be viewed by an upset person as you being judgmental or talking down to them. Seriously, read it out loud in an angry voice and see how easily it can be misinterpreted. Contractions lessen the likelihood of such problems:

I'm surprised you didn't call.

Again, read it out loud in a pissed-off voice to see if it can be misinterpreted as easily. Not so much.

Ridiculous and frustrating, right? Welcome to the world of imperfect adults in the workplace.

Replace tricky nice words.

Consider the following seemingly-benign question in an email:

Would you please remember to call me tomorrow?

This can be "heard" by an upset person as you being obnoxious. Have you ever had an impatient and frustrated friend begin with the statement, "Would you PLEASE ..."?

Play it safe and reword:

Please call me tomorrow.

Even better might be:

Kindly get back to me tomorrow.

Consider another benign example:

Thank you for making sure I got the report.

Believe it or not, this can be "heard" by an upset person as you being snotty or sarcastic. A rewrite can make it safer:

I appreciate your help in getting the report to me.

What is happening here? We are using extra words, polite words, to increase the level of courtesy in our email.

This is subjective art, not exact science. Make it part of your thinking, and you will improve as you go.

But always remember: talking face-to-face, on the phone, or on video chat can help avoid most of these problems.

Lesson: Message Tone
Module: Email
Course: Business Writing Essentials