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E-mail Miscommunication: How to Make Sure the Tone & Message of Your E-mail Messages are Never Misunderstood

E-mail imparts a great deal of convenience to our everyday communication. But while typing up a quick e-mail is certainly faster than playing phone tag or meeting in person, it lacks the personal cues that often make communication meaningful.

This is why it is very common, and very easy, for misunderstandings to occur. Perhaps the line you intended to be funny didn't come off that way on the other end. Or, you had no intention of being rude, yet your closing remark sounded so to the recipient.

Many people think they're communicating more effectively via e-mail than they actually are, a study found.

Why E-Mail has Limitations, and Why Many Underestimate Them

With e-mail, it is difficult to convey emotion because there are no paralinguistic, or nonverbal, cues such as gesture, emphasis or intonation. Even over the phone you can grasp a good deal about how a person is feeling just by the tone of their voice, for instance.

Interestingly, most people tend to underestimated e-mail's communicative limitations, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In five experiments, it was found that people tend to believe they can communicate more effectively over e-mail than they actually can.

The reason why it's difficult for us to appreciate e-mail's limitations stems from egocentrism, the study found. When you send an e-mail to someone, you are essentially "hearing" the statement you intend to send. So, if you intend to be funny or sarcastic, you assume that the recipient will also "hear" the message this way -- and it is difficult for us to remember that our audience may, in fact, hear the message completely differently.

How to Communicate Most Effectively Via E-mail

There are plenty of occasions when e-mail is perfectly suitable to use, assuming you follow these tips to make sure your intended message -- and nothing else -- gets through loud and clear.

  1. Always include a subject line. Keep it simple, informative and to the point.

  2. Keep paragraphs short. E-mail is not read in the same way as a print letter, newspaper or novel; it is quickly scanned rather than read in-depth. Make each paragraph just a couple of lines long so that the recipient can scan through the e-mail easily to get your message. And, put two spaces between each paragraph.

  3. Separate different ideas. Sometimes e-mail will need to be more complex, say with three very important points you need to get across. If this is the case, separate each idea into a distinct paragraph, then number them 1, 2 and 3. You can also announce in the beginning, "Please see the following three points … " If you don't do this and instead blend the three ideas into one long blurb, the recipient may quit reading before the end and only respond to one of your points.

  4. Before you click "send," be aware that your message can easily be viewed by wandering eyes (and hackers).

  5. Send attachments only when necessary. Attachments are time-consuming to open and sometimes translate incorrectly. They also carry the potential risk of computer viruses. If the attachment you are sending contains text that could easily be placed in the e-mail message instead, this is the preferred method. If the attachment is necessary, however, go ahead and include it.

  6. Identify yourself. You shouldn't assume that the person receiving your e-mail will automatically know who you are simply because of your e-mail address. Always include contact information.

  7. Know your audience. Oftentimes, it's OK to keep e-mails informal. You may abbreviate words, skip the spell check and include all the smiley faces you want, for instance, when writing to your best friend or your mom. However, there are times when e-mail should be more polished, such as when you're applying for a job or communicating with customers. In these cases, make sure you have proper punctuation, no abbreviations and skip the :).

  8. Watch what you write. E-mail is perhaps the least private way of communicating. At work, your e-mail may be read by your boss, coworkers or human resources manager, hackers can intercept your messages, and so can government agencies like the FBI. Assume that anything you e-mail can and will be read by someone other than the intended recipient.

  9. Respond promptly. Most people check their e-mail many times throughout the day, and whoever sent you an e-mail knows this. It is proper e-mail etiquette to respond in a timely manner.

E-Mail No-No's: What NOT to Do

Now that you know what to do to convey a strong message via e-mail, take a look at these e-mail mistakes. If you want to ensure that your e-mails get your point across, here's what NOT to do.

  1. Don't argue. E-mail is not the place to carry out a personal attack on someone, or to respond to theirs. If you have a disagreement or a touchy subject you need to discuss, this is best done in person, or at the very least on the phone.

  2. Avoid using ALL CAPS. If you've ever received a message written in all capital letters, you know that it is not only hard to read, but, it sends the idea that the message is being SHOUTED. (If you intention was, indeed, to shout, please see rule #1 above.)

  3. Don't hit "reply" endlessly. It's fine to hit the "reply" button two or even three times. But avoid using the "reply" button to send messages to a person for eternity. Why? Because the subject line will remain the same, even though the message will surely be about something different. (The exception here is if you hit "reply," then update the subject line.)

  4. Avoid vague subject lines. Most of us get a lot of e-mail. Messages with no subject line, or with subjects like "info" or "important, please read," give the recipient no idea about what's in the message. Instead, use subjects that are specific and informative, like "Meeting rescheduled to 1 pm."

  5. Know when to call instead. Certain messages are just too complex, too lengthy or too confusing for e-mail. Use your judgment, but if in doubt, it's probably better to just pick up the phone. The same applies to very personal matters that are best dealt with in person.

  6. Don't forward e-mails without permission. Remember that an e-mail is sent to you for a reason. The sender may not want their message sent onward, so it's best to check before exposing their message to the world.

Recommended Reading

Workplace Privacy? Here is Why You Now Have NONE

What NOT to Do When Shopping for a Car: 11 Key Steps


Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2005 Dec;89(6):925-36

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