What Did I Do Now?

Brian Taylor

April 20, 2011

I once had a supervisor that I liked personally, respected professionally, and got along with just fine. There was only one problem: Every time I received an e-mail from him, I thought he was upset with me. I remember wondering, on numerous occasions, "What did I do now?"

I wasn't alone. Often, after reading one of his angry-sounding e-mails, I found myself commiserating in the hallway with colleagues who had also been on the distribution list. We usually concluded those impromptu head-scratching sessions with some version of "I guess we're in for it now."

Except that we weren't. In almost every case, it turned out that the boss wasn't angry with us at all. More than once, I ran into him within hours of getting another stress-inducing message, only to find him as affable as ever.

Of course, as we eventually figured out, the problem was that he had poor e-mail skills. He was an excellent communicator in person or with large groups, but via e-mail he came across as an ill-tempered tyrant. He's not the only administrator to have that problem. In fact, most of us find ourselves there at some point or other. And that poses a real challenge, because so much of our professional communication these days takes place via e-mail.

Although some might argue that it's outdated technology—perhaps as an excuse for never checking their in boxes—e-mail still offers many advantages, which is why it continues to be widely used. It allows us to communicate directly with specific individuals, more or less in privacy, yet also enables us to address large numbers of people at once. It's more convenient than a meeting, less intrusive than a phone call, and more detailed than a text message. I don't see e-mail going away anytime soon.

That means administrators, if they're going to communicate effectively, must learn to use e-mail well. The fact is, supervisors can usually avoid hurt feelings, animosity, misunderstandings, and utter breakdowns in communication simply by practicing a few basic principles of effective e-mail etiquette:

Be cordial. While trying to decide on a heading for this section, I vacillated between "Be civil" and "Be friendly." I decided to split the difference.

You should certainly be civil. Threats, accusations, denunciations, recriminations, and biting sarcasm are not civil, whether expressed in an e-mail, in an anonymous blog post, or in person. But you need to do more than simply refrain from incivility. To achieve cordiality, you should aim for friendliness. Remember, e-mail is not cordial by nature. It does not allow for welcoming smiles, self-deprecating grins, or firm handshakes. All of the work normally accomplished by body language and facial expressions can be performed only by the words on the screen. Even emoticons can be misinterpreted.

That's why it's so important to begin your e-mail in a warm, informal manner, with a word like "Hi" or "Hello." If the occasion requires a bit more formality, then lead with "Dear," an old standby. Don't just lead with the person's first name followed by a colon—unless you want to come across as cold and mechanical.

Similarly, you should close with a cordial phrase like "Best wishes" or "Regards" or even (my least favorite) "Cheers," followed by your first name. I like to conclude by saying "Thanks," even if I'm just thanking the recipient for something that he or she is required to do anyway, such as turning in an annual report or not using permanent markers on the white boards.

Whatever you do, don't just close by stating your full name, degree, and title. I understand that many people have their e-mail accounts set up to include that information automatically, but that doesn't mean you can't close with something a bit friendlier.

Be professional. In work-related e-mails, do not, even in the interest of friendliness, resort to the kind of slang or shorthand that has become popular among the texting generation, and which you may use yourself in personal correspondence.

A few months ago, while in the process of refinancing my home, I received an e-mail from a bank official that contained emoticons and text-messaging abbreviations, including (I kid you not) "LOL." My thought at the time was, "Why did I get a 14-year-old loan officer? May I please have one of the 40-year-olds?"

Something else that doesn't translate well over the ether is humor, especially dry humor. Unable to see your facial expressions or hear your tone of voice, readers might not be able to tell when you're joking. Thus it's quite possible—in fact, it's happened to me more than once—that something you say entirely in jest, perhaps meaning the exact opposite, will be taken at face value and lead to a misunderstanding.

Soften your tone. In lieu of smiley faces and ill-fated attempts at wit, strive to make your e-mails more user-friendly by being extra careful about your wording. Overly clipped or clinical expressions always come across as harsh and demanding. Try to compose e-mails so that they sound less like official notifications and more like one human being communicating with another in a pleasant, conversational tone.

For example, instead of "Please submit your quarterly reports to my office ASAP," try "I'd appreciate it if you could get those quarterly reports to me right away." Don't hesitate to add an explanation, to show that you're not just being unreasonable: "I have to get my summary in to the vice president by Friday."

Be brief. No one reads long e-mails. It's simply not a format conducive to lengthy missives—and that's especially true now that many people read their e-mails on tiny smartphone screens.

My rule of thumb is that an e-mail should never be more than about 300 words. If you have more to say than that—for instance, if you're sending the minutes from a meeting or a charge to a committee—put it in the form of an attachment, which people can open, print, and read at their leisure.

Also, be sure to break long e-mails—anything over 75 words—into paragraphs. Like students "reading" a textbook chapter, people reading an e-mail tend to scan the opening sentence of each paragraph, looking to glean the important information without having to slog through the entire message. In fact, one of the biggest problems with e-mails is that key points often get lost in the middle of a long paragraph. A common lament, throughout academe and beyond, is "But I put it in the e-mail." You can avoid that problem by limiting each paragraph to two or three sentences.

But not too brief. The main reason my basically likeable supervisor tended to come across as angry in his e-mails was that they were so short—blunt might be a better word.

Of course, that was in keeping with his personality. He was a no-nonsense, get-to-the-point kind of guy, a trait that we underlings often appreciated in meetings. Even one-on-one he was able to soften his approach through body language and facial expressions. But in his e-mails, all we had were those bare, bleak words.

So say what you have to say, as succinctly as possible. Then go back (yes, you should write more than one draft of an e-mail) and add a few softening touches—a "Hi" here and a "Thanks" there. Change a demand—"Do this"—to a request: "I'd appreciate it if you would ... ." That will make the e-mail a little longer, true, but the investment in time and verbiage will pay off handsomely in good will.

I've been talking specifically here about e-mails between you and the people below you on the organizational chart. But much of this advice also applies to e-mails you might send to colleagues or to your boss. The bottom line is, if you're not a jerk but tend to sound like one in e-mails, that problem is fixable. If you're actually a jerk—well, sorry, but I don't think writing nicer e-mails will help much.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. He blogs at and writes monthly for our community-college column. His book, "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges," has just been published by the American Association of Community Colleges and the Community College Press.