How do I reply an email from my boss that has Cc-ed the whole village for a decision that looks like I missed my work when in fact, s/he changed his/her decision?
How do I reply emails that compliment my work?
How do I reply emails when my colleagues are clearly throwing me under the bus?
How do you write a sensible reply to someone who is passive aggressive?
How do you reply your CEO who has dropped you work and skipped the entire chain of command?
I am constantly amused at how writing, despite advances in technology, still revolves around 3 principles - context, power and tone.
Human communication over text is a fascinating thing - the semiotics can be interpreted widely depending on our mood, or even time of day. We read what we want to hear. Literature and authors, like musicians, exploit this to create colour and suspense. Yet, in professional business writing, a "colourful" tone can be mis-interpreted as sarcastic or worst-still, offensive.
The worst part is, the more people jump on the bandwagon, the confirmation bias grows every stronger and it email becomes morphed into its own interpretation regardless of the author's original intention.
So here are my 3 humble thoughts about email writing based on my personal principles. I've learnt these skills from mistakes, as well as my bosses, for whom I am eternally grateful for pointing out these hesitancies.
1) Context - reading between the lines
So you wrote an email, and you expected it to go cordially. Before you know it, a harsh reply came back and you are fuming. You feel wronged. You feel that the other person is unreasonable. She's a bitch, he's a jerk. This problem compounds when that person is someone with power.
Instead of hitting "Reply All", it is perhaps easier to pick up the phone. Come forth from the position as a listening ear, hear why and what this person is trying to tell you. That anger might be completely misdirected, or someone else is trying to send an indirect message via you to your team or boss, who's conveniently cc-ed in there. If you are completely sure of your innocence, then you don't have to go on the defensive and start a shouting match. Let it go and reply pleasantly, more anger doesn't breed resolutions.
Listen, understand, rant a bit...and calm down.
Secondly, you receive a very cryptic email towards a potentially very awkward conclusion. You can't seem to figure out exactly what has happened and you are too embarrassed to ask. What then?
Context becomes extremely crucial in the environment where information is non-transparent. You could be a scape-goat in the making, or be unknowingly complicit to a whole scheme of things you'd rather not get involved. In this context, ask very awkward and difficult questions, escalate matters if this is out of your pay-scale. Clarify with the sender if this was a mistake, seek confirmation on the objectives and have that in email. When the context is not clear, being clear about what your unknowns might raise the right alarm bells. There are no stupid questions.
But there are stupid assumptions.
One of my personal pet peeves, is people who write short curt and very accusatory emails that at once suggest very little in way of direction and also insist upon a multitude of things.
You know, those emails?
"I saw "X" this morning, what the hell are you people doing. Inserts sign off"
"Insert Cc to entire team: Please activate this for Amy as discussed, why is this still not done."
The former is a poor email form that js outwardly demanding, with all the room in the world for the team to jump in and start pointing fingers.
The latter, is passive aggressive. It suggests the receipient is incompetent of following instructions or the person giving it has a point to prove on the earlier point.
While I personally don't agree with these forms of email, they are dis-empowering to the receivers - even if they are guilty of the act. But wait, you cry, what if that person is a repeat offender! What if they don't move unless I resort to such tactics.
I believe that dealing with difficult people require strategies. For now, assume you are innocent and you find yourself on the pointy end of the stick, how do we reply?
Firstly, do not wrestle back control. Do not fire off another email that is equally foreboding and petty. Secondly, write to clarify, not defend. Do not start by saying "you didn't tell me" or "Ernest failed to...", it will just make the endless witch-hunting even more tedious.
We don't want the Salem witch hunts, we want to resolve a problem.
So the key is to write what you do know, how it will be resolved, and what is preventing you from finding a conclusion. It may well be a lack of information, your boss forgot that 5min discussion in the pantry, etc. Confirm that discussion, seek clarity and with each onion layer you peel, the power balance tilts in your favour. Consider your positionality, and how much change you can effect over the organisation and adjust your content. The less power, the lesser explanations on email. We're not called to answer for problems beyond our pay-scale - unless the problem is you or your team.
If you truly forgot to do something, do not over-explain. In true Gordon Ramsay style, recover, and save the excuses. By giving excuses, you are crippling people's expectations of your work, when what you really want is to admit that we all make mistakes, and they can adjust their own worldview. The latter being, everyone can identify with and the former being just someone desperate to cover up. Ironically, you win power by being more vulnerable because you don't win approval, but you win empathy.
Writing from power also means being affirmative. "I think", "It might be possible" are phrases to avoid especially when you are putting forward a recommendation. It cracks open debate which will further undermine your confidence. If you are not sure, then why are you recommending?
Friendly or business-formal? Should I insert that smiley face? Is slang allowed?
It is obvious that much of tone comes from the first 2 points. Yet at the same time, tone is the structure we put up to set ourselves up for success or failure.
Consider your relationship and objectives, if you would like you ease a tense situation by throwing a joke, you would be better off doing it in person. Humour is a risky thing, because it depends on timing and frame of mind. Unless the relationship is on a firm basis, risking a joke is generally not wise.
Consider tone as a bridge between 2 gulfs of ideas. If you have a point that you want to say, consider using tone to draw the person in. Sell-in rather than hard-sell. It is often much palatable if the writer seems to be open to a conversation, rather than coming as a directive.
Except of course, when it is truly a directive.
I consider tone like music playing. You can play the piano and the teacher often asks you to sing the melody line. You get a sense of phrasing where the composer intends to end a sentence. Tone of emails is exactlt that, you have to read your email out loud to consider if the text reads well. Are your salient points are highlighted? Can some parts of the email be interpreted wrongly? Think about various ways of reading, like music, there are many ways to go about singing a melody.
Tone, is a word that is associated with aurality. When in doubt, vocalise.
Ultimately, this is a very long and convoluted way of thinking about email writing. I don't have specific tactics, because if those will automatically come to you if we shift our mode of thinking. Don't self-victimise, and tilt power in your favour. Appraise how your reply affirms or disavows your position in the company and write mindfully.
My rule of thumb is, if I have doubts about my email, discuss it offline with your manager or with that person directly. It's often a sure sign that the email will come back with a reply that is not entirely favourable.