Career Testing
Career Testing
Career Testing
WORKPLACE / JUN. 18, 2015
version 6, draft 6

Do Your Emails Get Lost In Translation?

Scarlett Johansson lost in translation

You’ve probably already fired off a few emails today, right? Email is a mainstay of our lives: according to Pew Research (reported in Campaign Monitor) 61% of adults use email on an average day, and 92% use email overall. A survey by Osterman Research found that nine out of ten of business people use emails more than they did last year. Indeed, email is useful for both business and personal communication.

But it isn’t without its problems. And one of its biggest problems is that it doesn’t lend itself very well to communicating how we truly feel or  how others feel: neither non-verbal nor verbal cues for relaying information are transmitted to help us discern this. So we are just as likely to view an email we receive as being cold and clinical as we are to view it as positive. Below are aspects of email communication that may express a tone we do not intend – hidden traps we may fall into when communicating in a medium that seems innocuous but in reality is anything but…

See Also: Why You’re Signing Off Your Emails The Wrong Way

Not matching the "emotional expectation" of the recipient

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, organizational behaviour expert Andrew Brodsky emphasises the importance of “emotional expectations” when sending and receiving emails. The way we process emails is influenced by our emotional expectations, irrespective of the intention of the person sending the email, he says. For example, you may perceive an email from your boss to be critical and negative, but if you were to receive exactly the same email from a colleague, you may view it as collaborative. According to Brodsky, emails from people who are higher up the ladder are more likely to be perceived as negative compared with emails from colleagues.

Other factors that affect how an email is received include the length of the relationship between the sender of the email and recipient – the longer the relationship, the less likely an email will be perceived as negative. The “emotional history” of the relationship and the personality of the recipient – negative people are more likely to perceive emails negatively.

Leaving too much room for emotional ambiguity

Beware of writing emails that lead to emotional ambiguity. This is easily done when demotic touches such as using emoticons and text-speak are infused into directive emails. For example, an email from a manager criticising an employee but using emoticons to ‘soften the blow’ could be viewed as “condescendingly nasty”. A better strategy would be to state the intended emotion more explicitly.

Lack of authenticity in our emails

“Email makes it so easy to fake and edit emotional displays” Andrew Brodsky

Now for the good news: typos are not all bad. In fact, Brodsky recommends the use of typos to come across as “more authentic”. His experiments found that typos stood in positive contrast to the over positive, perfectly ‘crafted’ messages we send out. In his Harvard Business Review article, he asks: do we really believe the salesman who states in his email that he is “thrilled” to make our acquaintance?

He suggests that to appear more authentic and approachable, you make the odd "strategic" typo: “Why would someone ever make a typo if they were trying to impress me?” With the important caveat that you must judge whether it is better to be seen as authentic or competent (in which case avoid typos).


Most of us feel confident regarding our ability to relay emotion via email. But what is obvious to us may not be obvious to others. A comment that we email to a colleague may be sent in the spirit of humour, but may cause offence to our colleague.

We should take note of these hidden traps of email communication and err towards being more explicit about our intentions, in order to give less room for misinterpretation by others. It is also important that we are more aware of the “emotional expectations” of the recipients of our emails, and we should be more focused on authenticity (perhaps add in the odd typo or two).

See Also: 6 Email Etiquette Tips

To contribute to this conversation, please use the comments box below.

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