There is no tone in email

Consider the email chain below. I’ve assembled it in sequential order and bracketed out some parts that are not public.

  On Feb 8, 2012, at 10:56 AM, David Cohen wrote:
Hi Mark,
[Something great is happening to me that I never expected – redacted]. Who knew.
Can you send me [the address I need – redacted]?

On Feb 8, 2012, at 11:14 AM, Mark Solon wrote:
i did…
[the address – redacted]

On Feb 8, 2012, at 11:15 AM, David Cohen wrote:
cool. thanks. sorry. this time i have it. 😉

On Feb 8, 2012, at 11:17 AM, Mark Solon wrote:
no, not what i meant 🙂
you said “who knew”, my answer was “i did”

On Feb 8, 2012, at 11:18 AM, David Cohen wrote:
ah. lol.

On Feb 8, 2012, at 11:20 AM, Mark Solon wrote:
if i ever sent you an email that said “i did” in that manner, i’d call me a dick if i were you…

On Feb 8, 2012, at 11:21 AM, David Cohen wrote:
i never read tone into email. i just figured you were on your phone in a meeting or something.

It would have been easy to read Mark’s “I did” comment as him being a bunghole. To me, he was saying “Dude, I already sent you that information so here it is again” and my initial reaction was that Mark was cranky and having a bad day. But the mistake in reading the tone was 100% mine. Mark was just complimenting me, saying “I knew” that this [something good] was going to happen to you. Essentially, he was saying it was no surprise to him that I was have success with something. He meant it 100% as a compliment, but it came across to me as a rude tone in email.

We all use email for very quick communications today. Keep in mind, any tone you attribute to a message is generated entirely by your brain, and not by the sender. Right now, are you attributing what I’m saying as “preachy” in tone? Or as a simple attempt to be helpful? It’s impossible for you to know from the word written here. Hopefully I get the benefit of the doubt.

Give the sender the benefit of the doubt on tone. Assume email has no tone.

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  • totally. completely. agree.

    there are two types of people in this world:

    1) those who have gone through TechStars
    2) those who haven’t.

    i’ve noticed that people that fall in category #2 sometimes think i’m being brusque or harsh with my emails. i’m not. i’m simply being direct and straightforward.

    i’m going to start adding to my signature:
    “There is no tone in this e-mail” (and refer to this post)

  • Greeley

    Great post, the exception to not reading tone into an email you receive is the email SHOUT. This is one of my pet-peeves, as if the reader couldn’t understand the email if the IMPORTANT parts weren’t highlighted.

  • Email Rule #1: don’t assume.
    Email Rule #2: don’t let the angry genie out of the bottle.
    Email Rule #3: If you feel you need to do #2, write, wait four or more hours, and then reread and delete. If you can’t delete and want to send, wait another four hours.

    These have saved me more times ….

  • Brad Bernthal

    Widespread use of emoticons highlights shortcomings and challenges of tone in short written communication. We need to develop a more sophisticated / nuanced punctuation system in an age of email + Twitter. A sarcasm or a “just kidding” punctuation mark, for example, would be a helpful start.

  • While it is true that email has no tone, words do have meaning. I have had plenty of experiences where I misinterpreted initially, gave the benefit of the doubt, and was glad I did. But, I have also had experiences where it is clear that the sender is a bunghole. In those cases, the interpretation is not reliant on the application of tone because the message is loud and clear.

  • anonymous

    Hello. Currently I am communicating with a male (acquaintance) and his tone of emails sometimes cause confusion for me. I can tell his happy or grateful moods by the words he chooses. Other times it’s just generic and difficult to interpret. Is he in a bad mood, tired, offish, upset with me? Communicating in person you can read the person’s expressions and tone of voice. Email is more difficult.

    • like i said, there is no “tone” in email. the problem comes when we make assumptions about tone that may not be present.

  • David Sloane

    I used to agree with this sentiment – tone is neutral and nobody should read anything into emails.
    But this isn’t how people communicate in person – they express tone – and email readers always try to interpret the tone of an email. It’s not ideal, but it’s unavoidable, because the tone is an important piece of information. And if it’s not spelled out, readers will try to interpret it.
    I had a manager tell me once that, in fact, it is possible to set the tone of an email, and that it’s important to do that, so nobody misinterprets your intention. And you can do this, with great effect, by adding words and creating context.
    This is somewhat inefficient – my emails to infrequent correspondents are padded with extra context and caveats – but it conveys a more complete, harder-to-misinterpret message.