Workplace Doctor: Email is no substitute for human interaction

Perceiving the tone of work emails can be tricky, but there are techniques to help you navigate the rough waters of digital communication.

Perceiving the tone of work emails can be tricky, but there are techniques to help you navigate the rough waters of digital communication. Istockphoto
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I sometimes struggle to perceive tone when receiving work emails. What sounds like a harsh reprimand turns out to be a joke and what seems serious is just a flippant comment from a colleague. What's the best way to navigate through email etiquette? I'm only two years into my career and I often get it wrong. KS, Dubai

In the age of the internet and digital communication, emails are often our preferred way of sharing information at work. Data from one source states that the average worker receives approximately 121 emails a day. That gives us a vast amount of information to read, interpret and respond to. So just like with face-to-face conversations, it is not surprising there are some specific stumbling blocks to effective two-way communication in the virtual domain.

In some respects, these “in the moment options” do make our jobs easier, as they allow us to respond quickly, communicate broadly and share ideas efficiently. Yet email traffic is fraught with risk and if not managed effectively can cause some serious roadblocks to performance at work. The reason for this is exactly as you have suggested – it can be challenging to perceive tone and meaning from an email. Lately I have received some messages that appear so cryptic I feel like I need a detective to decipher them.

There are a number of important do’s and don’ts for email etiquette. My first recommendation is to really ask yourself whether you should be having that conversation by email. A harsh reprimand or critical conversation should take place (wherever possible) face-to-face or through a medium where people can voice their concerns or ask questions through an open dialogue (such as on a telephone or web conference). Through email, you lose out on the uniquely human ability to perceive the emotional tone and make sense of how the conversation is flowing (or isn’t).

Although emails may feel interactive, they are not. They are in fact reasonably static, because they are a written response. Yet mainly becauseof convenience, we use them as a substitute for real conversations. If certain things are being misconstrued, then one of the main reasons is that conversation was not suitable for email in the first place, especially in a busy workplace where people don’t have the time to read things thoroughly.

My next point is that email eti­quette is contagious and the way you operate when tapping away at the keyboard has a significant effect on the tone of response you receive in return. We have all been there – we get an uncomfortable email that we don’t agree with and we find ourselves clicking “reply,” typing up a quick heated response and hitting “send” without giving so much as a thought about what you’ve just written. Many experts agree that your email behaviour has the potential to sabotage your reputation both personally and professionally.

Also you should never hit “reply all” unless every member on the email chain needs to know. If you show concern for limiting unnecessary noise in someone’s inbox, they will show concern for yours. I have also tried to keep my finger off the trigger when I am cc’d in emails, but if you ask my co-workers it is eas­ier said than done.

The final way to get through the email jungle is not to be afraid to prioritise and even cut out the noise. The priority blogger Merlin Mann talks about having a five-fold choice when faced with a new message: delete, delegate, respond, defer, or do. This effectively turns your inbox into a to-do list, involving hard choices about how to get things done effectively. In some situations you should be critical about what you respond to. And if some emails create emotion or confusion then you don’t have to reply via email – you can check it out on the phone or face to face or choose not to address the issue at all.

Doctor’s prescription:

Even the most well-mannered and skilled communicators among us can be seen differently via email. Writing an email that comes across just like you do in person is an art rather than a science. It’s certainly efficient, but it can turn otherwise easy interactions into messy misinterpretations. Therefore, considering whether to have the conversation through email, managing your own email etiquette and treating emails as a clear set of priorities are all important techniques to navigate the rough waters of digital communication.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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