How emails can be misconstrued

Have you ever received an email from a colleague that has left you perplexed? If so, don’t panic, you’re not on your own. In fact, 50% of all emails in the workplace are misunderstood.

Managers and employees at all levels aren’t communicating as well as they think they are, with research suggesting this is having an impact on how people perceive their colleagues. A badly written email can convey the wrong message, leading to confusion and even negative feelings towards the sender.

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How are emails misconstrued?

A workplace email can be misinterpreted in any business that uses electronic communications. The main reason is that tone, emotions, gestures, eye contact, facial expressions and body language can’t be present in an email.

The language used is of vital importance, as it’s the only means you have of conveying your message correctly. Emails can very rarely convey emotions accurately. They are open to being misunderstood if the recipient reads something into the words that weren’t intended by the writer.

The real meaning of a message can get lost through this medium and this can cause a working relationship to go sour; a project to proceed with incorrect information; or an important conversation to be misinterpreted, leading to confusion and potentially a loss of income, should an important client be offended.

Around 60% of people who have received a simple two word email of congratulations, such as, “Well done,” have interpreted it as being sarcastic, so it has assumed exactly the opposite meaning of that intended, according to research by Nick Morgan, author of How to Connect with People in a Virtual World.

It’s sensible not to make jokes in an email that could be misunderstood. Whereas your voice and expression, when making a dry comment or a dark joke, would convey you weren’t serious, when the same words are written in an email, they can be taken completely out of context.

One phrase that never comes across well in an email is “FYI”, the abbreviated form of “for your information”. While you may mean it in a helpful way when you tell a colleague some useful information, it can seem passive-aggressive and irritating. The recipient may imagine the sender saying it in a patronising tone, implying they know best.

If you’re emailing a colleague, rather than writing “FYI”, it’s far better to keep the tone more friendly and chatty, along the lines of, “Just to let you know,” before telling them the necessary information.

In the modern office, the use of emojis in emails is becoming more widely accepted. An early example of how emojis were becoming culturally ingrained was provided in 2015, when the Oxford Dictionary announced its “Word of the Year” wasn’t actually a word, but was the emoji showing a “face with tears of joy”!

There are now etiquette rules for using emojis at work, as 61% of people use them in emails. Emoji use is “basically universal” among the 13 million users of Microsoft Teams, the communication and collaboration platform, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Studies show the part of our brain that recognises and processes human faces can also process emojis. An emoji conveying a human emotion can convey this in an email. This means emojis can help to put across the correct emotional tone of the message.

Examples of emoji use

If you’re short of time and just reply to an email with “okay”, you might think you’ve agreed to something. However, it can be interpreted in numerous different ways. Although it can signify positive acceptance, it can also be misinterpreted as apathy or even passive-aggressiveness.

By adding a smiling emoji to the word “okay”, you are removing any ambiguity, as the recipient can see you’re sending a positive response. An emoji can be sent quickly but adds the context that would be missing without its inclusion.

The secret is to learn to use emojis in a professional way, by adhering to the relevant etiquette. Never flood your message with many different emojis, as this can soon start to look unprofessional. Remember, if you are discussing a serious matter, an emoji is not appropriate. Similarly, if you don’t know the person you are emailing very well, it’s best not to use emojis.

However, if you’re in regular contact with the recipient and you’re conveying some disappointing news, such as a project being delayed, for example, a “sad face” emoji might be appropriate to convey that you too are sad about the outcome.

Don’t use emojis if you don’t fully understand their meaning. In particular, never use any faces that could wrongly be interpreted as flirtation, romance or anger.

The general rule of thumb is that you can use emojis with colleagues in the office, but not with potential clients. When you’re trying to woo someone with your business acumen and professional skills, a row of smiley faces isn’t the way to do it.

What about important conversations?

While emailing someone and ensuring your message conveys the right tone is fine in many instances, when you need to have an important conversation, a face-to-face meeting is often the best option.

Written conversations are useful in many ways, but when a colleague or client is able to meet you in person, you can get a true feel for how it’s going. Emailing all the time means we’re losing our people skills – a traditional conversation in person has long been the key to running a successful business.

A study in 2020 (when in-person meetings weren’t possible due to the Covid-19 pandemic) revealed 84% of respondents said talking to someone face-to-face was the most effective method of business communication. They felt interacting digitally on a regular basis meant people were less likely to have meaningful conversations.

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