The Ambiguous Email

Email is probably the most common form of communication in the workplace. It has all but replaced letters, phone calls, and simply walking down the hall for a quick conversation. Many of us are alright with this development — communicating through writing enables us to gather and organize our thoughts, reducing anxiety about “sounding stupid.” But, ironically, written communications are more easily misunderstood than oral communications.

Why? Because when something is written, we don’t actually hear the tone of the expression (we don’t hear how the person is saying the words). When we talk with others, we interpret the meaning of their communications through the combination of their words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures. When the communication is only written, the tone and gestures are missing, increasing the likelihood of miscommunication. (We instinctively understand this — with the advent of texting, the use of emoticons has become indispensable. Emoticons, however, are unequivocally inappropriate in the business setting!)

As a result, we are forced to interpret ambiguous emails. For example:

You: “Mr. Smith, My parents are flying in from Houston this afternoon. Would it be alright if I left early to pick them up?”

Boss: “Do what you have to do.”

Hmmm. How would you interpret your boss’s response? It’s hard to say. You might ask your buddy in the next cubicle what he thinks. You might be tempted to ask your boss for clarification but are afraid that would be annoying. So, do you stay or go? Now, if you had simply walked down the hall to ask him, you would have heard his tone of voice, seen his facial expressions and body language, and there would be no doubt in your mind whether he was actually ok with you leaving. Even if you simply called him on the phone, you would have heard his tone and better understood his response (or been able to ask follow-up questions to clarify). The email, rather than reducing your anxiety about communicating, has increased it tenfold.

Sue Shellenburger, with the Wall Street Journal, gives another example in her article “Email enigma: When the boss’s reply seems cryptic” ( “Jill Campen was baffled recently when her boss, Marty Finkle, fired back a one-word reply to her carefully thought-out email asking for his approval on a client-training presentation she had prepared: ‘Done!’ Campen […] puzzled over the message for a half-hour, then decided she was too upset to resolve the matter by email.” When Campen finally called her boss for clarification, he explained that “[w]hen her message popped up, his first thought was, ‘We’ve already talked about this. I could get rid of this really quickly.’ By the end of the conversation, the two were laughing.” Campen’s situation went from upsetting to comical — because she finally picked-up the phone and called her boss!

Bottom line: Avoid ambiguity — walk down the hall or pick up the phone when possible and don’t be afraid to follow-up an email with an actual conversation.


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