I consider myself to be a pretty honest and considerate person, who takes my professional life and the presentation of my professional self fairly seriously. True, I could probably wear nicer clothes to work, and yes, my beard is not always expertly trimmed (it grows fast). But I do my best to make sure I present myself through my actions, my writing, and my communication in a way that is professional, personable, and respectful.
So, I was a little taken aback, but mostly embarrassed and ashamed, when I received an e-mail this morning from a colleague that was critical of an e-mail I had sent them asking a favor. It wasn’t a mean exchange, but a series of suggestions to make my correspondence better. Looking back on our e-mail exchanges, she was right. I had not taken the time to carefully craft an explicit and professional message, a terribly embarrassing, mistake considering the content (I was asking a favor) and the context (she is a superior whom I have never met).
The irony in this situation is that I myself am annoyed by certain e-mails that I receive. Sometimes they lack complete sentences, or don’t even include the name of a sender. There is, of course, the occasional e-mail written in text-speek, or a series of emoticons, not words, scattered throughout the message. I’m sure we’ve all received this message. And, I’m sure, we all think that our e-mail etiquette is top-notch: bad e-mail is a problem that other people have, not us.
Of course, e-mail is like any other form of writing: it’s content varies on the context of the message. With colleagues, and even professors, I know well, a quick one-liner will suffice. Other times, the level of formality needs to be increased. Sometimes, you might be able to gage the tenor of the message from what you are responding to, but that might be a little risky (your ability to gage might not be correct). There are a number of blog posts written about e-mail etiquette, and many of them seem to have contradictory advice in them; the comment sections even more so. I think that, before you hit send, considering why you’re writing the message (content) and who you’re writing it to (context), are probably the most important parts of crafting an e-mail message. Those two elements will determine the tone, length, and level of formality that the message requires.
So, what do I take away from this? A lot. I can point to a number of instances in my professional development where a colleague, mentor, advisor, parent, or friend has pointed out to me how my behavior may be negatively or positively impacting the way others view me and my work. Rather than viewing these moments as confrontational, I try to make sure I take them as positives. This can’t always be easy, particularly when you think your actions are helping, when they aren’t. Approaching these moments with an open, and self-critical mind, not a defensive one, is the best way to better yourself.
My rule of thumb has always been that if something I’m writing makes me uncomfortable, it probably is something I shouldn’t do. Now, I think I need to add another rule: if what I’m writing doesn’t make me uncomfortable, I should probably pause, reread, and think harder about what impact it might have on others. It is important to take the time to think about how every email you send, every word you say, every tweet you tweet, and every picture you post might influence how your colleagues perceive who you are as a person and a professional.
Words matter. In this case, I was fortunate enough to be communicating with someone who wanted to help me become a better professional, and took the time to help me. While it is humbling and embarrassing to have flaws pointed out, I am fortunate that this person did so discretely, and with my best interests at heart: more often than not, my email would have been ignored, my reputation tarnished, and an opportunity lost. Due to her graciousness, I now have the opportunity to learn from my mistake, and to become a better, more professional, communicator.