How To Sound Nice In Emails: 7 Good Tips

by Matthew Morris

Over 40 years ago, Dr. Albert Mehrabian proposed that human communication is made up of 55% body language and 38% tone of voice, with the other 7% being the actual words we use. Whether or not the conclusion of Dr. Mehrabian’s study is accurate, communication through email raises some obvious limitations.

While reading an email we are unable to see if the emailer is smiling or frowning, nor can we hear if their tone is accusatory or empathetic. Lacking these important visual and auditory cues, communication through email can sometimes lead to misunderstandings; even arguments and broken relationships.

Be Nice or Lose Out

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It seems silly to have to say this but, unfortunately, not enough people/businesses concern themselves with being perceived as friendly. Keyword there is “perceived”. I do believe that most people truly do want to be seen as friendly and, if you’d ask them, they would even tell you that they think they usually are being friendly. However, ask the people around them (anonymously) if they’re friendly or not and you might turn up different results.

The issue here is most definitely one of perception. It is not enough for us to just have good intentions (to be friendly), we must be aware of how other people may perceive our message as unfriendly and then actively work to make sure that isn’t the case.

Yes, we live in a sensitive world (for better or worse). Adapt to this reality or… lose out.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

'Mirror Mirror on the...'

Many of the misunderstandings that happen through email communication tends to happen because of our tendency towards “mirroring”, or psychological projection. This is a defense mechanism humans subconsciously employ in order to cope with difficult feelings or emotions. We sometimes project our emotional state, beliefs and/or ideas onto others and assume they are thinking things they aren’t, simply because we are thinking them.

Without those important visual and auditory cues inherent in face-to-face communication, it is very easy for us to project our own intentions and feelings onto the email’s sender, feelings that don’t accurately represent their true intentions or feelings.

Example:

“John/Jane,

You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm. Please call us at your earliest convenience to reschedule.

Thank you,
Anonymous Dentist”

Depending on this email recipients emotional state, their thought process or due to some other circumstance(s), this email may sound:

  • Straight to the point, emotionally neutral and totally reasonable.
  • Or, it may sound very accusatory, passive-aggressive and demanding.

This was a real email once used by a client of mine. After they had a patient call them up and explode on their receptionist for being rude (this person also left disparaging reviews on Google, Yelp, Facebook and everywhere else), they assessed what happened. Thankfully, they did not just pass this person off as “nuts” or “crazy”, though it may have been somewhat warranted. 😉

Instead, they contacted us for advice. Here is part of what we offered:

People Read in Their Own Tone of Voice

If someone is mad, they’re likely to read your message with an angry undertone. If someone is happy, they’re likely to read your message with a cheerful undertone. People read in their own tone of voice. Now, obviously, you have no control over how somebody is feeling just before they open up your email. However, understanding this psychological fact helps to drive home the reality that it is important to be conscious of how you may be received.

1. Never Start Neutral and Negative Sentences With “You”

Starting a sentence off with “you” is a very direct and personable approach towards addressing someone. This may be an affect you want to capitalize off of if you’re saying something positive. However, when you are addressing someone in a way that has the potential to be seen as neutral or negative, the directness of this approach can come off as overwhelming and rude. For example:

“You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm.”

Sounds much more confrontational and negative than,

“It seems there was a missed appointment today at 2pm.”

2. Maybe Phrase in Questions, Not Statements?

Phrasing your message as a statement may have the affect of coming off to your recipient as accusatory, demanding, authoritative and/or unquestionable. These may be characteristics you want to express in certain situations where your authority is being challenged, but never towards a patient/client/customer. Doing so might just make them shut down completely, closing off any potential to further develop your relationship.

To the contrary, try to rephrase a potentially confrontational statement as a question. Sometimes phrasing a message as a question can have the affect of opening up the recipients mind, allowing them to come to a similar conclusion as you want them to, but on their own accord. This lessens the chance of them feeling they’re being accused of something or spoken down to.

For example:

Instead of, “You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm.”

You could say, “Did you miss your appointment today at 2pm?”

3. Use the Sandwich Technique Religiously

The “sandwich technique” is a tried and tested strategy to lessen the impact of potentially confrontational statements and questions. My late father (an executive management consultant) used it religiously to confront the fragile egos of executives in large companies. Basically, you sandwich the challenging/confrontational statement or question between two flattering/funny/de-escalating statements.

For example:

Instead of, “You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm. Please call us at your earliest convenience to reschedule. Thank you.”

You might say, “Hope all is well. You missed an appointment today at 2pm. We miss you. Give us a call to reschedule.”

4. Use Emoticons and/or Smiley’s 🙂

Like the “sandwich technique”, using emoticons can help lighten the mood and deflect some of the possible negative connotations of critical statements/questions. Don’t use them like your 17 year old high-school daughter might (4 or 5 every sentence), but end a possibly confrontational sentence with a smiley face to convey friendliness.

“You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm.”

Sounds much more confrontational and negative than,

“You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm. 😉 ”

5. NO CAPS LOCK!

Seems obvious, right? GOOD, SO DON’T DO IT! Unless, of course, you have a good relationship with the recipient, your point is very important and they know you mean no ill will. Otherwise, you might just come off like you’ve lost your head in a screaming fit of rage. Like I just did.

6. No Random Compliments

To counter the previous advice on the “sandwich technique”, be careful with randomly complimenting folks. In doing so, you may unintentionally come off as patronizing and disingenuous. Something like a cheap car salesman or worse, a creepy scam artist.

Have you ever received one of those Nigerian scam emails? They’re full of cheesy, unwarranted compliments that just scream of desperation and bulls***.

“Hi, I’ve read your work and see that you’re a highly intelligent and special person. Your golden ideas could really help us become as successful as you one day. Please donate…”

Keep your flattering to a minimum and only do it when it is absolutely needed (like before and/or after you offer criticism). Surprisingly, while most people love attention, we really dislike this kind of fluff.

7. Express Gratitude Without Saying Thanks

There is no better way to turn friend into foe than to act ungrateful. Yeah, that sounds like something Lao Tzu might have said, and it’s true. Always present yourself as being grateful, even if you are feeling frustrated or resentful.

That said, it’s also important to be careful using common terms of politeness in emails. Words like “please” and “thank you”, while appropriate expressions of gratitude in person, may easily come off as condescending or demanding through email.

For example:

“You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm. Please call us at your earliest convenience to reschedule. Thank you.”

Sounds much less friendly than,

“You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm. Please call us at your earliest convenience to reschedule. We hope all is well and we can’t wait to see you again!”

Let’s Bring It All Together Now

So we have now reviewed 7 actionable steps we can take to make sure our emails sound more friendly. I imagine that if my client would have known all that we’ve talked about today concerning perception, framing and delivery, their (ex) patient wouldn’t have went AWOL and all SHTF on them like they did. We live and we learn.

Now let’s take a look at the difference between their message before the incident, and the one we later crafted using these 7 steps above:

“John/Jane,

You missed your appointment today that was scheduled for 2pm. Please call us at your earliest convenience to reschedule.

Thank you,
Anonymous Dentist”

Versus,

“Hey John/Jane,

Hope all is well with you. It seems there was a missed appointment today at 2pm? We were hoping to see you! 😉

If you get a chance, give us a shout and we’ll reschedule for later this week?

See ya soon compadre,
Anonymous Dentist”

Article by Matthew Morris

Matt is the founder of Lemon Sevens. Graduated from “Tha School of Hardknocks” summa cum laude in 2008 with a PhD in Hustling and a minor in Psychology. When he’s not running Lemon Sevens he’s probably out running, quite literally.

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