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The following is a guest blog post from Dr. Andrea Sanders, Professor of English and Humanities at Chattanooga State.

Presenting yourself as a professional when communicating electronically can be a tricky business. In an email, the recipient of your message cannot see the expression on your face, nor can she or he see your body language. Your voice is stripped of its warmth and character. You become, in effect, black marks on a white screen. Is it any wonder that emails can be easily misinterpreted? How do you prevent such misunderstanding and present the bodiless, faceless you as a real human being – and a professional one at that?  

Inject your message with the missing tone and color – give your message a “human face.” The easiest way to do this has a parallel in a typical business call. In this setting, you rarely start out, point-blank, with the purpose for your call. More than likely, you begin with “How are you?” or “How was your trip to France?” Begin your email by showing an interest in the email recipient as a human being, not just someone who can do something for you. Inject a little humor whenever appropriate – there is only a two-letter difference between “humor” and “human”! 

Use the same politeness formulas that your mother taught you. Open your email with “Dear ____.” Close your email with “Sincerely” or “Best wishes.” In between, be sure to say “Please” and “Thank you.” You will be surprised what a difference those simple words make in email communication. 

Accept responsibility. Another two polite words that have enormous power are “I’m sorry.” Be quick to acknowledge your mistakes, to apologize, and to correct your errors. Many email exchanges flare up because senders want to place blame rather than accept responsibility. The truth is that, even when you are not literally responsible for the error, accepting responsibility for it can gain you more standing in your organization. Someone who deflects responsibility soon appears irresponsible; someone who absorbs responsibility – and turns the problems around – appears responsible and trustworthy in the eyes of the organization. 

Answer the question asked, and keep it short. This advice sounds obvious, but is the cause of many a misunderstanding (not to mention frustration) in email communications. If a co-worker writes, “When do I need to get this back to you?” don’t say, “You know, I thought that if I could have it by the middle of the month, I would be able to get that report finished and out to the stakeholders by the end of the fiscal year… so I think that we ought to try to get it done as soon as possible.” Recognize that when you write a long and vague response you are not answering the question. Instead, just say, “June 18.” Ah, what a relief to the recipient of your message! Remember that, like you, your co-workers are busy folks. Stay on task with efficient and effective language.

Use qualifiers and re-direction to soften what otherwise might be construed as harsh or accusatory language. Use the classic business writing technique of the “you attitude.” Turn the pointing finger back to yourself instead of to your message recipient. Instead of this, “Why don’t you ever follow directions?” say this: “I am so sorry that my directions were not clear. Can you help me know where they led you astray so that I can revise them and help you understand?” Qualifying language – as opposed to categorical statements – can make your emails more logical and more effective. Contrast “Your department never works efficiently” to “Let’s work together to find a strategy for increasing efficiency in your department.”

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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