How can I write friendlier emails?
July 10, 2006 5:57 PM   Subscribe

The tone of my emails has been called condescending. I really don't want to come off this way. What can I do?

I recently rejoined a law firm that I left (voluntarily) 5 years ago. Back then I had developed a bit of a reputation for being condecending to others. In the 5 years since I thought I had made progress and become a more supportive (rather than destructive) team member. Feedback I have received since then bears this out.

However, I cannot seem to bring my emails up to the level of my office behavior. My own brand of humor, especially sarcasm, does not come through in emails. Other than adding emoticons at the end of every sentance, is there anything I can do to avoid coming off like a jerk in my emails?
posted by madandal to Human Relations (47 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
add emoticons?
posted by matteo at 6:01 PM on July 10, 2006

Maybe you should stop trying to be funny.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:01 PM on July 10, 2006

sorry, "why not add emoticons"?
posted by matteo at 6:02 PM on July 10, 2006

Well, the obvious suggestion is drop the sarcasm. You don't have to be funny in work emails.
posted by aubilenon at 6:03 PM on July 10, 2006

I mean, they were invented for that, I suppose, because it's sometimes difficult to convey one's tone in writing. the alternative is writing a lot of caveats like "with all due respect", "I understand your point of view, but let me repeat that", etc.

I'd rather add emoticons than write that borderline-insincere stuff
posted by matteo at 6:04 PM on July 10, 2006

Many people have this problem in online communication, so first off don't beat yourself up over it. (Just read any Mefi thread and you'll see condescention galore).

The trick sometimes is to be over-polite. It would help if you could post an example of an offensive email.

On preview, yeah - never try to be funny over email with office mates.
posted by muddgirl at 6:05 PM on July 10, 2006

Or another trick I use is to have a face-to-face conversation first, and only use email as a quick summary of what we just talked about, for future reference.
posted by muddgirl at 6:05 PM on July 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

This happens to me sometimes as well. I think sarcasm is the hardest thing to translate into text. The truth is: if you want to be more professional in your emails, you may have to filter yourself a bit. Take the extra moment after writing an email (any email! you'd be surprised how this kind of humor sneaks its way in) and ask yourself if there's any way one of your comments could be misread. Try to avoid using sarcastic humor in office emails, as hard as that might be. At times, it's going to feel unnatural. You might have to type stuff you would never actually say.

Stupid Example:

Instead of "Gee, could they move that deadline any closer?" write "The deadline on X case is fast approaching."

That one's obvious, but it's the kind of hunting I have to do in my own emails.

On preview: muddgirl has it with the "overpolite" thing.
posted by theantikitty at 6:08 PM on July 10, 2006

Don't skimp on the "please," "thank you," "I appreciate it," "I would be grateful if...," etc. Also don't skimp on addressing people when you open the email (even if it's just a simple "Hi Scody") and signing off ("Thanks, Madandal").

And yeah, unless you know for a fact that you're emailing someone who will definitely get the joke, don't. (Especially if your style of joking is more sarcastic than goofy or silly -- sarcasm relies so much on tone that it's really not a safe bet for email with people who aren't in the sarcasm loop with you already.)
posted by scody at 6:11 PM on July 10, 2006

My brand of humor is very thick with sarcasm, so I completely understand your problem. You can't be write like a Victorian gentlewoman in every e-mail to your colleagues; instead of condescending, they'll call you humorless. I only use sarcasm in e-mails with people who really understand my sense of humor offline, and even every now and then, punctuate it with a "just kidding," just to be sure.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 6:13 PM on July 10, 2006

Definitely eliminate sarcasm from your emails. Sarcasm works because of the tone of your voice and/or the look on your face - neither of which are available in an email.
posted by mikeinclifton at 6:14 PM on July 10, 2006

I've gotten nailed for this as well, although it's usually for my itchy send finger and for being flat out curt, rather than sardonic, which can come off as high-handed.

Try to be as clear as possible and use qualifying statements like "with all due respect" and "in my opinion" and so on. It will soften your tone.

Also remember, as I'm sure you're painfully aware, that sometimes it's just better not to put some things in writing, so it's best to try to temper your written words or to have a conversation. In my department, we have a policy that if it takes more that two responses to resolve an issue, we talk.
posted by wildeepdotorg at 6:14 PM on July 10, 2006

Keep e-mails extremely succint and factual.
Re-read them to be sure there is only one way to parse them.
Never use sarcasm.

Remember, people skim e-mails for key words, so even those who would get the joke in person are likely to miss it in e-mail.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 6:14 PM on July 10, 2006

Response by poster: Okay muddgirl, here goes. Context: I have just been assigned to cases I don't know anything about and I am responding to an email that said that if I wanted to know anything about the cases, I should ask the lead attorney. I condescend as follows:

If someone gives me a case list with that info on it I would be happy to. Otherwise, I have no idea who the lead attorney is on cases I have never heard of.

I'm cringing a little myself right now.
posted by madandal at 6:15 PM on July 10, 2006

I would rewrite that response to be something like:

Could you provide me with a list that shows each case's respective lead attorney? I would really appreciate it.

Thanks a lot,

Very polite, lots of thank you and appreciative language, and cannot be read as condescending. There is rarely any need to go into the "if you don't do this, then X will happen." It is frustrating because often X is the most obvious, idiotic thing imaginable. Just bite your tongue fingers and be neutral.
posted by gatorae at 6:24 PM on July 10, 2006

Well, that would be condescending in real life too. The second sentence is completely unnecessary, isn't it?
posted by danb at 6:30 PM on July 10, 2006

If someone gives me a case list with that info on it I would be happy to. Otherwise, I have no idea who the lead attorney is on cases I have never heard of.

Address the person you are writing too, don't take the impersonal third party-ish tone.

Something like:

Sally, do you know who has a contact list with the lead attorney's name? I don't have access to that information.
posted by voidcontext at 6:31 PM on July 10, 2006

On post, gatorae's rewritten email does the job better.
posted by danb at 6:31 PM on July 10, 2006

Yeah, that definitely isn't going to go over well. You need to rephrase that to something like:

I'm unfamiliar with the background on the cases I have been assigned. If you could please provide me with the lead attorneys for these cases, I can follow-up with them.


There's no clear formula for writing business emails. You need to balance being direct with moderate politeness. "Please", "can I/you", and "thanks" go a long way. I'd leave out all sarcasm and humor until you've got a good grasp of writing business emails. It's going to take time to get used to it.

Pretend you're writing to your old grandmother. Her eyesight's bad so you can't write long-winded messages or she's going to fall asleep. But you still need to be sufficiently polite or you're out of the will.
posted by junesix at 6:31 PM on July 10, 2006

I once heard sarcasm defined as anger wrapped in humour. There's some truth to this.

I would suggest no sarcasm in emails, ever. you cannot tell the mood that the reader is in, when they are beginning to read your email. you do not have the verbal and physical clues about their state, as you would if you were talking to them in person.

and, I strongly suggest against emoticons as well. Emoticons are best used in bulletin board discussions, instant messages or in SMS, but they really don't have a place in business communications, particularly in a legal firm - you would certainly not use them with clients, nor are they appropriate for communications between employees of a given firm. If you need to indicate that you are joking, then it would appear more professional to write [laugh] or [wink] than symbols that - again - your reader might not understand (what was that colon-parenthesis he sent to me? is he swearing at me!?!?)
posted by seawallrunner at 6:35 PM on July 10, 2006

Best answer: Work emails should be:

-requests for action (clearly spelled out: "Please do this")
-responses to requests for action ("I will do that.")
-important information ("The building is on fire.")

That's it. Don't be funny. Don't write anything that isn't one of the above. Don't write anything obliquely - say it, and say it clearly and succinctly. You want "least common denominator" writing - don't use big words, even to supposedly bright lawyers. Remember relative power levels - demanding things of people who outrank you is unwise.
posted by jellicle at 6:40 PM on July 10, 2006 [3 favorites]

You're correct. Humor and sarcasm rarely translate in e-mails.

The solution is to be succinct: Limit yourself to saying what's necessary, only. Just like anything else, the potential for malfunction or misunderstanding increases with every added layer of complexity — in other words, the more you write, the more likely you'll write something that can be misread. Keep it short and simple.
posted by cribcage at 6:40 PM on July 10, 2006

I second seawallrunner -- no emoticons in professional communications.

Once a day my officemate reminds me of some study that found that (something like) 80% of email writers felt they communicated clearly but (something like) only 40% are correctly understood. Tone of voice and facial expression mean a lot. Knowing how often miscommunications occur helps me keep my own work emails talking-to-a-child simple and nauseatingly-syrupy-sweet polite.
posted by salvia at 6:41 PM on July 10, 2006

It's not a hard rule but I typically keep jokes to the PostScript (P.S.). If the recipient gets it, haha. If not, then no harm done and the body of the email remains professional and on-point. Even then, I only joke in emails with people whom I've already built a history of casual banter.

Oh and never, never, never use emoticons with clients or communications that may get forwarded to clients. It's extremely unprofessional.
posted by junesix at 6:42 PM on July 10, 2006

Response by poster: Salvia, if you have it could you please post a link to that study?
posted by madandal at 6:45 PM on July 10, 2006

Tone in email.
posted by jellicle at 6:49 PM on July 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Here's another:

I appear to be egocentric. Actually, I am fairly sure I am.
posted by madandal at 6:53 PM on July 10, 2006

I completely disagree with the suggestions by some to "use emoticons" -- that is going to look incredibly unprofessional, especially to higher-ups in organizations who haven't 'grown up' with e-mail and its quirks.

Sarcasm rarely works in email, even with friends; it is largely dependent on delivery, facial expression, and context -- the first two of these are impossible in email. I think you'd be wise to avoid it at all costs in business emails.

As far as the email you gave as an example above, yeah, it's condescending. But I suspect if you said it out loud to someone it would sound fairly condescending/rude too. Erring on the side of over-politeness is always a safe bet in the workplace, email or not.
posted by modernnomad at 6:56 PM on July 10, 2006

Answer to your question: Allow the person you are speaking to to come to their own conclusions about the topic that you are discussing.

For example: "Everybody knows that macs are overpriced, so we should clearly get PCs." Can come across as condescending.

"I have heard that Macs are overpriced, have we looked at PCs?" throws the ball in their court.

A non-answer to your question: Sometimes being seen as condescending is not a bad thing, and some people pull it off well (I'm thinking of a few brilliant engineers that I've worked with). You better be right 99.9% of the time, though.
posted by empath at 7:02 PM on July 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I agree with keeping it polite, but where I would be very formal in starting a conversation, I think it's acceptable to ease up on it as correspondence continues with that person during the day. I've observed that making the same obligatory pleasantries to a person in one day rings hollow and becomes condescending.

But that's just how I roll. You have to know your audience.

If you haven't already, it might help to read the ole "How to Win Friends and Influence People." It helps to learn how to sugar coat critical remarks, or if you're really keen on getting along, see things from other peoples' perspectives.
posted by evil holiday magic at 7:20 PM on July 10, 2006

I have a very wise ex-girlfriend who always stressed how important it is to preserve other people's egos. It is something I have a bit of a problem with as well -- a coworker once told me that she felt like there was an implicit "you fucking idiot" at the end of every sentence I uttered. This is hyperbole, but there is a bit of truth to it. Your sample email certainly has a "you fucking idiot" implicitly appended. If you can try to preserve your coworkers' egos, and not make them feel small or stupid, they will appreciate it, and you will have much more success.
posted by TonyRobots at 7:35 PM on July 10, 2006

Almost every business email I get ends in "Thanks".
posted by metaname at 7:56 PM on July 10, 2006

Ending with "thanks" when you're asking someone to do something (rather than after they've done it) strikes me as peremptory and presumptuous, and is a hallmark of the HR department and all those other passive-aggressive twats who think disguising commands as requests is effective business communication.
posted by cardboard at 8:08 PM on July 10, 2006

There was probably a nicer way to say that: courtesies should be used as courtesies and not as tools to manipulate people or preclude discussion.
posted by cardboard at 8:11 PM on July 10, 2006

I definitely agree with the whole 'quit trying to be funny' recommendation.

Even when executed well, they're still ambiguous. An email is either personal or non-personal, in my opinion, and keeping them seperate makes it easier to figure out if someone is trying to be an ass on purpose or otherwise.

Furthermore, when I see someone making a joke in a work email I typically think they're trying too hard, because they usually are. Or, compensating for something else.

If you must do anything, just add a smiley face in one out of a hundred or two emails. It makes me tingle.
posted by cellphone at 8:16 PM on July 10, 2006

Keep the tone professional, as many have noted, and when you're writing, try to keep in mind that people are busy - when asking someone for information, brevity and focus is key. If you focus on brevity, and don't try to strike too conversational of a tone, you should be fine.
posted by pdb at 8:42 PM on July 10, 2006

Maybe one of your problems are emoticons. I find that adding smiley faces after certain things seems patronizing. Especially in work correspondence, smiley faces can say "duh" or "you should have known that" or something else condescending.
posted by apple scruff at 9:27 PM on July 10, 2006

Now, who has a suggestion on how can I anonymously send this to a coworker who's only email conversations are with me? I've talked with her before and she still doesn't get it, and it's even more frustrating that quite often she's not only coming across as rude, but is also wrong.
posted by Iamtherealme at 9:56 PM on July 10, 2006

Ending with "thanks" when you're asking someone to do something (rather than after they've done it) strikes me as peremptory and presumptuous, and is a hallmark of the HR department...

I think going so far as to say, for example, "thank you for your cooperation" can be condescending and HR-like. But a simple "thanks" after a request doesn't seem so bad. If you're almost sure they're going to oblige, then you're saving a thank-you e-mail. If you're not sure, then you're thanking them for even considering your request.

Nth on emoticons being unprofessional.
posted by Mapes at 10:01 PM on July 10, 2006

People write way too many e-mails.
posted by zackdog at 11:22 PM on July 10, 2006

I close just about every email with "thanks again" because even if I have another request, I'm usually already thanking them for something.
posted by salvia at 1:09 AM on July 11, 2006

You're not being condescending, other people are being over sensitive.

Patronizing is in the eye of the beholder.
posted by DrtyBlvd at 4:08 AM on July 11, 2006

Well, the obvious suggestion is drop the sarcasm.

Seconded for the umpteenth time. And no emoticons either; I instantly lose respect for anyone who sends business e-mails with that kind of nonsense (I don't much like it in personal e-mails too, but I cut people more slack). And yeah, there's no such thing as a misplaced "thank you." You're not writing for your circle of internet buddies who are attuned to all the nuances of internet humor (and frankly, even on MetaFilter, where everybody is relatively attuned to it, "humor" is misunderstood 50% of the time); you're writing, as junesix says, to your old grandmother. Don't be yourself; be polite and "nice."
posted by languagehat at 7:05 AM on July 11, 2006

Do you have an office buddy that could read over your emails? I sometimes have a hard time writing emails that don't come across as blunt and somewhat rude, especially when replying to a stupid question or a rude client. (I also have a sarcastic sense of humor.) If in doubt, I'll usually draft an email and send it to my office buddy (in my case, my boss) to read over and tell me how it sounds. It really helps to get another opinion because my emails don't always sound how I think they sound in my head. Once you get the hang of it, you'll need less feedback.
posted by geeky at 8:26 AM on July 11, 2006

Reading your example, it sounds like you felt defensive and resistant to the request. Do you think that your response really was just a light-hearted attempt at sarcastic humor? Or do you remember feeling that it was dumb that you were being asked or how you were being asked? If the latter, it's not that you're being misinterpreted, it's that your true feelings are sneaking in! To fix that, here's what to do. 1. Notice that you're pissed off, resistant, defensive, or whatever. 2. Give yourself a little generous understanding in your head. "Oh, mandandal, you're really feeling pissy and anxious about that dumb request. You deserve to. But don't worry, you sometimes feel like this, and once you're over your initial reaction, you always do fine." 3. Get over being resistant. 4. Figure out if there's something you need to ask for. 5. Ask for it nicely, in such ways as several respondents have already suggested. The wording will come to you once you've acknowledged the unfriendly feelings and given them a moment to simmer down.
posted by daisyace at 8:37 AM on July 11, 2006

Geeky's suggestion is a good idea- in fact, if there are one or two specific people in your office who pick up on how your emails sound 'wrong', they are the people to ask for help - in a how to win friends... way, it flatters their ego, but most importantly proves that it's not a deliberate snark at them- that way the next time an email *could* sound bad, they'll step back and think "oh, but I know that's not meant to sound bad, he's shown me he's trying to improve his style".

EMails are too easily miswritten and misread- good on you for trying to solve it, rather than just blaming the reader. Best of luck!
posted by flameproof at 3:49 AM on July 12, 2006

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