7 Ways to Avoid Email Misinterpretation

As a web writer, it's important to write emails — and other web copy — that can't be misinterpreted. When you’re writing to clients, the last thing you want is for them to think you’re disrespectful or entitled. But many times, our emails can come across exactly how we don’t intend them to.

A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found people could only correctly interpret the tone and mood of an email half the time. That means if you’re happy all the time, your clients could think you’re upset, irritated, or annoyed half the time.

The same study found that even though people only interpret the tone of an email correctly half the time, 90% of them believe they have correctly interpreted it.

It could be because you hear the tone you intend in your head as you write, and therefore you think the tone of the message is obvious. Or it could be because, when you’re having a conversation via email, they can’t see your facial cues and body language, or hear the tone of voice you’re using.

Since we only have a 50/50 chance of our emails being properly understood, we should make every effort to be as clear as possible when emailing. Here are seven ways to make sure your emails aren’t misread:

1. Take your time.

It’s safe to say we’re all in a rush these days. That’s why it’s not surprising many of us send emails without thinking them through.

Taking a few moments before hitting the “Send” button to double-check the email message and make sure that it can’t be taken the wrong way can help avoid a lot of headaches.

If you don’t have time to think about what you want to say, and how you want to say it, save your email as a draft and come back to it later.

Of course, one way to save time is to keep your emails short.

2. Say less.

Writing brief emails lowers the chance of having your email misinterpreted because there are fewer things to say wrong or for your reader to take the wrong way.

Remember, it’s easier on you to read shorter emails as well and by keeping your messages short, you encourage the reader to respond with a short email.

Of course, if they aren’t taking your hint, you could always use this trick, and limit the number of sentences in every email you write while encouraging others to do the same.

3. Stick to one topic.

If your emails are long, it’s probably because you’re trying to cover more than one thing at a time. This leads to confusion, unanswered questions, missed steps, frustration, and email misinterpretation.

One of the easiest ways to say less — and to get your question answered quickly — is to stick to one topic. There will be less to misunderstand and your reader can quickly get to the point.

4. Don’t start with pleasantries.

In a Creative Mornings talk, Simon Sinek explained that when you have a request for something, it’s best to ask for it first and then include pleasantries. When you start with pleasantries, it comes across as a ploy to get what you want. But, when the kind words come after the request, they seem more genuine because they don’t seem like part of your agenda.

For example, instead of saying, “Dear Becky, I loved your article today. It was great! Please read the attached web copy and give me your feedback.”

You should say, “Dear Becky, Please read the attached web copy and give me your feedback. By the way, I loved your article today. It was great!”

5. Avoid Emoticons.

Studies show we misinterpret positive emails as more neutral than the sender intended. We also misinterpret neutral emails as more negative. Sadly, jokes are rated less funny by readers than senders.

If you write something you think might be offensive to the email recipient, adding a winky face doesn’t make it okay. And, if a comment requires a smiley face to be understood, then it’s probably best to eliminate or rephrase it.

6. Put yourself in their shoes.

It’s a good idea to re-read your emails and consider how the other person will feel. It can be difficult because the reader will interpret it based on their mood and expectations, but consider if there is a way your email could be misunderstood? If so, you might want to rewrite it until there is only one clear meaning.

I’ve received quite a few emails where people use ellipses (the three dots) incorrectly. They might say, “Thank you …” But because I agree with the Wikipedia description, “ellipses can be used to indicate an unfinished thought,” I feel like these emails are saying, “Thank you, but …” or “Thank you for nothing.”

I try to remind myself that they probably didn’t intend it that way and may not know what ellipses mean, but it can still be hurtful and is an example of email misinterpretation.

7. When all else fails, make a phone call.

It might be faster and better to call if you don’t have enough time to type a thorough email and read it twice before clicking “Send.”

If you’re concerned your email might be misunderstood, or if you’re struggling with what you want to actually say, pick up the phone. You can talk it out and both reach an understanding. This works best with touchy subjects or if you’re already in a confusing conversation.

However, there is a bright light at the end of the email misinterpretation tunnel. Familiarity between email senders and receivers reduces the problems of email misinterpretation. The better you know someone, the less likely you are to misunderstand what he or she typed.

So, how about you? Do you have any funny stories about email misinterpretation or tips to make sure your emails are better understood?

This article, 7 Ways to Avoid Email Misinterpretation, was originally published by Wealthy Web Writer.

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Published: June 27, 2012

1 Response to “7 Ways to Avoid Email Misinterpretation”

  1. Thank you for contributing your ideas and for writing this article.

    Your points are well taken, to be sure, and you are right on the mark.

    One needs to figure out what are the rules the game: things like etiquette and protocol.

    You may intend to send an email to a third party with kid gloves on, but a perfect stranger may think you are either rude or taking him or her for a ride.

    This happens all the time during exchanges of this nature and it is avoidable in most case.

    There is nothing like a personal meeting to arrest the decline.

    Archan MehtaJune 27, 2012 at 1:31 pm


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