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9 Ways Email and Text Can Go Wrong, and How to Avoid These Mistakes

People working from home during a pandemic can find themselves communicating mostly digitally, with little opportunity for in-person interaction to smooth the rough edges of the short, abrupt messages that often get sent around.

Don’t email or message when you’re looking for a positive response.

How do you best avoid having a quick Slack message that goes, “Let’s talk.” sounding passive-aggressive?

What follows are tips that you can use to make sure that your digital communications are always received positively, rather than viewed as angry, annoyed, or cold.

When you don’t have the option of regular, face-to-face communication to help make things better.

Research suggests that requests made in person are far likelier to be approved than claims made over email or text messages.

People tend to view messages sent digitally as less critical and trustworthy than messages delivered in person.

If you need to negotiate with a higher-up over something important and can’t meet them in person, it can help bring up the topic on video chat before you move to email or text.

Use emojis

When you can’t use multiple sentences to express your tone clearly, emojis can help immensely. A short text message that says, “Don’t show up late again,” by itself, may be interpreted as annoyed and rude.

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When it goes out with a smiley, however, the message can sound like good-natured teasing. Certainly, emojis can make you sound unprofessional when you aren’t familiar with the person you communicate with.

However, when you know well about one emoji to a message, it can help you keep short messages from sounding abrupt.

Typos communicate feelings.

When you send out a message containing typing errors, you unintentionally allow the other person to make any number of interpretations.

If the message includes any criticism, the typos can amplify the emotion and make it sound angry.

They can make you look like you’re in a hurry even when you’re not, or they can make you look like you believe your time is too valuable to allow you to worry about typos.

To make sure that you don’t send out inadvertent cues such as these, it helps to slow down for a minute, proofread, and then hit the Send button.

Check out Grammarly to help catch your typos as you write.

Do emotional proofreading for every message you write.

New employees receiving training on the job for the first time are often asked if they can remember ever having improved an emotional situation through an email or text. Inevitably, everyone answers that they don’t.

They are then asked if they have ever inflamed an emotional situation through an email or text, and everyone raises their hand.

This type of exercise helps new employees understand how difficult emails and text messages can be to get right.

It’s important to understand that short email and text messages readily convey negative emotions better than positive ones.

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You need to take special care with digital communication to make sure that it goes out with the right tone.

Reading over what you write a couple of times before you send it out can help you judge what kind of emotion it is likely to convey to a reader.

Grammarly can also help you because it allows you to set a tone before the proofreading takes place.

Understand that punctuation marks can convey unintended emotions

When you agree with something someone says to you with a message that goes “Okay.” with a period tacked on, you may sound more negative than you would if you wrote “Okay” without a period.

Periods can make a person sound as if they want no more communication on a topic. When someone sends you a short message with a period, that makes them sound abrupt, it can help to see if they always use periods.

If they do, you could give them the benefit of the doubt and keep from overanalyzing their punctuation choices. It could also help to skip periods yourself when you send out concise messages.

Don’t use email and texting with people you don’t know well.

When a message is ambiguous about whether its intent is positive or negative, people tend to assume the worst. It’s a risk that you always run when you text or email someone you don’t know very well.

For example, if you were to write to upper management and received a comment from a friendly colleague who said your message to the manager could have been put better, you’re likely to see it as a suggestion that you could have been more effective.

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The same message from your boss, however, could make you feel your email was utterly unacceptable.

When you’re only beginning to get to know someone, it can be helpful to use videoconferencing, rather than email or text.

The video helps so that your tone, your facial expressions, and your body language can convey your intent far more accurately.

Studies show that two-thirds of all communication is nonverbal.

You wouldn’t want to communicate at a third of your communicative efficiency when it’s a meaningful conversation with a superior.

If your requests aren’t urgent, be clear about it.

Whether you’re emailing a colleague or messaging them on Slack, the real-time nature of these communication methods can make it appear as if all messages on them are urgent.

Whether you need to ask for an update, for someone’s ideas, or their thoughts on a document if it isn’t urgent, you need to be specific and say so.

If someone doesn’t need to get on a task right away, it’s only considerate to let them know it.

Also, if someone has the Do Not Disturb mode turned on in Slack, it’s polite to respect it.

Don’t communicate when you’re emotional.

If you’re angry, anxious, or pleased about a situation, you don’t want, as far as possible, to be too quick to reply to messages. Waiting for a few hours, if it’s possible, makes sense.

Even better, you could wait until you meet the person you need to communicate with, face-to-face.

When you’re calm, you’re likely to be better able to articulate not just your immediate reactions, but the thoughts and needs that form the backdrop to your emotions.

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Whether it’s a salary negotiation conversation or to talk about a new idea, if you need to use email or text, it makes sense to give yourself time.

Read through your communications a few times, putting yourself in the recipient’s shoes, and only send out your messages once you’re sure.

Finally, if it isn’t urgent to communicate about something, it can help not to send out messages after working hours, or over weekends.

It doesn’t matter if you preface your message by saying that it isn’t urgent, or that the recipient can wait until Monday to reply — when people receive emails and messages, they tend to feel psychological pressure to respond right away.

They also tend to become resentful about being interrupted during their free time.

Digital communications often have unintended consequences, simply because they are usually short and cannot adequately convey the wealth of emotional cues that go into the face-to-face conversation.

The best way to communicate digitally is over a video call. However, if it isn’t an option, the tips here could help you understand the limitations of email and text and make the accommodations necessary.

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