Denver Bar Association
January 2007
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Workplace: Your E-mail Leaves Room For Misunderstanding
There is a 50 percent chance the tone of an e-mail will be misinterpreted


by Dana Knight

Reprinted with permission from The Indianapolis Star.

You trot into the office in a fine mood. Must be the scrambled eggs and bacon (and the extra dose of Matt Lauer) you had for breakfast. You are ready to brighten someone’s day.
How about sending an e-mail to your co-worker who won employee of the month yesterday?
"Geez. You are so awesome. I’m proud," you write humbly, imagining the smile that will spread across his face as he reads your praise.

Minutes later, inside the cubicle of your award-winning co-worker, a guy is seething as he interprets your note as a mean jab, a sarcastic you-didn’t-deserve-the-award message.
For every message you send, there is a 50 percent chance the intended tone of the e-mail will be misinterpreted, according to research published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"I’ve given up e-mail as a casual form of communication altogether," says Dusty Riggins, a technology manager. Yes. Even a tech geek has found fault in this form of workplace talking.
Riggins says if he needs a file from someone or a time for a meeting, he will send an e-mail. If he needs to ask the boss why a project was done a certain way or a co-worker to help him out more, he reverts to old-fashioned talking in person.

E-mail is a tricky thing. Senders assume the emotion in their message is obvious because they "hear" the tone in their minds as they write it, the study says. The receivers, however, can’t read minds and interpret the message based on their own moods and expectations.

It’s safe to say e-mail is an emotional workplace hazard. It turns offices into high schools with workers gossiping about he-said/she-said kinds of things. It leaves hurt feelings and confused souls.

Even worse, it sucks the true value of face-to-face communication right out of the office.
Now wouldn’t it have been better if you had trotted your happy, bacon-and-egg-filled self into the co-worker’s cubicle, offered a handshake, a smile and a "Congratulations on your award!"
That can’t be so easily misinterpreted. And it can save everyone much misery, says
Judith Glaser, author of The DNA of Leadership: Leverage Your Instincts to Communicate,
Differentiate, Innovate
.

One misread message can turn into hours of lost productivity.

"What happens is, it puts the focus on the inside, instead of the outside, catering to clients and customers," she says. Glaser doesn’t suggest ditching e-mail altogether, but suggests a few tips for using it: 

  • If you are going to send an e-mail that is questionable, have a trusted person read it and see what tone he or she interprets.
  • If you’re just e-mailing to get something off your chest, write it in a draft form. Don’t send.
  • If a serious situation is connected to an e-mail, sit with the message an hour before sending it. Take a break, then reread it. Even you may interpret it differently than you originally intended.

 


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