Getting Around The Negativity Bias in Email

Avoid passive aggressive work emails

Email is the bane of many an organizational communication strategy. It’s embedded into office life, in some places so deeply that it seems impossible to usurp its place at the top of passive-aggressive outlets (or wait, is that what Google Hangouts is for?). At least science can now back up what we all know: email can be the effing worst sometimes, especially the latently patronizing-commanding-ccing your grandboss variety. No, not all missives are designed to torpedo your emotions, but a harsh tone is enough to make you do a double take.

All the exclamation marks, smiley faces, and parenthetical ha-ha moments can’t soften the tone of your email. Fast Company has it that, whenever we receive an email, we’re already pre-disposed to take the tone more negatively than it was intended.  With the lack of feedback loop in this kind of communication–meaning no social or facial cues, tone inflection, etc–it’s easy to take an email meant as a reminder as an imperative.

Email Etiquette

So how can one soften their email presence? Here are my favorite e-cues from the article referenced above:

Avoid Imperatives

Unless you’re in the army, commands aren’t something many people like receiving. Do this. Go there. Finish asap. We, as free humans, like being able to determine our workload and our work speed. So rather than order people in your messages, ask them to do something. Would you and Could you are subtle changes, but are automatically read as more respectful. Allow the recipient to take action as they can.

Stay Upbeat

Chances are, when you initiate email contact, it’s to ask something or gain benefit in some way. But consider classic negotiation tactics: to get someone to act in a way that benefits you, there has to be some caveat or something in it for them. At least, that sweetens the deal, right? Frame your email messages from the perspective of the greater good, or as Fast Company puts it, terms of quality, progression and/or gratitude.

Add a Little Sparkle

I use emojis and a patented smiley face in my emails (ok, not patented, but it’s mine). Some people might refrain from exclamation marks and cheery euphemisms, but it’s my position that it makes emails more palatable and conveys those feedback mechanisms that would otherwise be lost via the medium.

Or Just Dump Email Altogether

My main organization is one of those for whom email is the foundation of most communication. Dumping email is not an option here. On the flip side, I just wrapped up a contract at an organization where email was limited to certain kinds of communication. Everything else happened on Slack.

I like the ephemeral nature of Slack communication channels, and the opt in-opt out mentality. But email has its own place in the communication hierarchy–I’m just not sure it deserves the top slot anymore.

What do you think?

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