In my seminars recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about tone. People feel that they themselves or others are too “abrupt” or “brusque” in email. This is not uncommon. 

The problem exists because writing is a much more limited system than our other forms of communication. When we talk to people face-to-face, we interpret their body language, gestures, facial expressions as part of what they are saying. When we talk on the phone, we lose the body, but we still have the voice with all its inflection, tone, and volume.

Listen to a conversation. Are the speakers using complete sentences? Can you hear the punctuation in what they are saying? Usually not. Spoken conversation, whether in person or over the phone, hardly ever uses complete sentences because our bodies and tone of voice convey where one idea ends and another begins. We repeat ourselves, stutter, restart, rethink, pause in the middle, and do a hundred other things that are considered absolutely unacceptable in writing. Writing has to be more correct because we aren’t there to provide all the other signals that our audience interprets. 

 But this means that tone can be hard to glean from a written sentence. It’s completeness alone makes it feel a little alien, a little formal. When a boss says to an assistant, “I need these files put away, and bring me that new file from the Smiths now.” The assistant can see that the boss is busy, that the boss has a lot of different things going on. Probably the boss and the assistant have had several interactions throughout the day, and the boss is just putting these instructions out there in the middle of many other things. But if an email just said:

 “I need these files put away, and bring me that new file from the Smiths now.”

 it would read pretty harsh to us. The same words take on an entirely different tone when the context changes. Without the body, the voice, the interaction, it’s hard to read the person’s intention.

 There isn’t a whole lot we can do about this, but we do have some tactics that will help mediate the rough tone of writing. 

  • Think about your audience. There is a person on the other end of that email reading and interpreting your words. Write with an awareness of who that person is, what your relationship is to them, what their day is like, how they typically respond to your messages, and any other details you know about that person that will impact the construction of your message.


  • Use a greeting and closing. Tone is improved by adding the formal elements of a greeting and a closing because an email isn’t taking place in the middle of a conversation. (Of course, if you are replying to an ongoing thread, you are in the middle of a conversation and the greeting and closing may be overlooked, particularly if the responses are happening on the same day—how many times would you say “hi” to a person when you passed them in the hallway? That’s about how many times (2? 3?) you need a greeting on an email on the same topic to the same person on the same day.


  • Be clear and concise. Write in complete sentences that are short and direct. This means taking a few moments to consider how the information contained in your sentences will be received. Look back at the example sentence. What are “these files”? How would the reader know which ones the writer is referring to? We need more information in the written version:


    I need the files on my desk put away, and bring in to my office the new file from the Smiths now.”


    Now, the instructions make sense for the reader.


  • Be polite. Most of us have been taught since childhood to use please and thank you. Make sure you are doing that in your writing as well.


    Please put the files on my desk away and bring the new file from the Smiths in to my office.


    Now the instructions use a courtesy word.


  • Provide objective explanations for time constraints. When we provide people with logical explanations for why things have to be done by a certain time, we are helping them understand the external mechanisms that have placed pressure on us and, subsequently, them.


    Please put the files on my desk away and bring the new file from the Smiths in to my office when you get a moment, preferably an hour before my 3pm call with them.


    Yes, the message is a bit longer, but instead of demanding that the assistant do what is instructed immediately, the assistant now understands why a certain action needs to be taken and by when. The objective reason allows both reader and writer to work together to achieve a purpose that they can contribute to together.

  • Ask questions. Questions allow us to acknowledge another person’s autonomy. People make the choice to hold a particular job or work for particular people. They decide to show up every day, probably usually on time, and answer the phone and their email, and make business happen. We need to trust each other to do our jobs and acknowledge that everyone’s participation in that job is a choice they are making. We can do that by asking questions.

Of all the suggestions I have, this one seems the most scary to the people in my seminars and classes. Their biggest fear is that the person on the other end will say “no.” If it is within the person’s job description, then saying “no” will be a huge risk for them—what person who wants to continue to have a job is going to say no to something that is definitely part of their job? No one. So, if the person says “no,” then that’s going in a file somewhere and when enough of those “no”s exist, that person won’t have a job anymore. On the other hand, if you ask someone a favor and they say no, then you’ve probably asked the wrong person. Just ask someone else.

Really, the risk of asking questions is very low and completely changes the tone of your message. By asking, you are acknowledging the person’s right to say no while demonstrating that you have no expectation that they will say no. You are showing that you trust them, and that can go a long way in making up for the absent bodies and voices that challenge our tone in writing.

Would you please put the files on my desk away and bring the new file from the Smiths into my office when you get a moment? I’d appreciate having the file at least an hour before my 3pm call with them.

Again, the message is longer, but it is about as nice as we can get when telling someone what to do in writing.