Thursday Thought: An E-Mail Wake Up

Posted by on Jan 20, 2011 in Dirt, Leadership and Management | 11 Comments

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.

Photo, “Letters with tilt shift” by mbgrigby at Flickr.

  • Enlightening. My current problem is how to write professional emails and not have email turn into a bigger time sink than it already is. It takes me a few minutes to shoot off quick notes to advisor’s and peers. It takes me close to an hour to write with the level on intentionality you write about here. I suppose practice will make it quicker.

    • That’s exactly what happened to me in this instance: I was trying to fire off a bunch of emails at one time, and this one got lost in the shuffle. I’m not sure if you necessarily need to spend hours crafting an email, but at least take the time to consider the emails content and context, and make sure the message is written accordingly. Thanks for your comment!

      • Right. At the moment I’m settling for using proper titles (Dr., Mrs. etc.), complete sentences, and respectful tone.

        Point of confusion though: when you address someone as Dr. and they reply using their first name to sign off what do you do? I’m sticking with Dr. unless I know them.

  • Lynneg

    I think this is a terrific post, and not just for students. Many professionals should also follow this advice.

    • Thanks! I think there are a couple lessons in here…not only the piece about writing better email, but also the professional way that I was approached and coached about it. It wasn’t confrontational, or rude, just a minute from her day to help me out.

  • Anonymous

    Great post. I’m currently struggling (as many of us are who teach) with the increasingly demanding, almost entitled tone of emails I get from students. I’m making a conscious effort to teach them that in “the real world” the tone they use with instructors is absolutely unacceptable. It has also forced me to get tougher on myself and my email tone toward students.

    • What’s complicated about that is the idea that for some reason, what happens at college isn’t part of the “real world”…but that’s another post all together…

  • Jubin Cheruvelil

    Many young professional make this mistake; I have done this as well. I always cringe when I recognize a mistake ridden email. You had someone who cared enough to help you to develop your skills. Hope everything is going well.

  • Terry Brock

    Thanks, Jubin. and everything is going well! same for you, I hope!

  • Jeremy Alder

    Dig your blog. You made it onto the list of the top 30 archeology blogs of 2011 at Congrats!