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Dr Amy Irwin & Dr Alexandra Cleland: Simple steps to get it right when you write

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The current Covid-19 restrictions have led to lots of us working from home, which means more and more of our communication has moved from face-to-face conversations to emails and texts.

This rapid shift towards digital communication has been great as a way of keeping businesses running remotely, but there is plenty of research showing that the potential for misunderstandings and perceived rudeness increases when using only written communication.

My psycholinguist colleague, Dr Sandie Cleland and I have research interests in both language ambiguity and rudeness in the workplace. Through our research we know that emails can be open to misinterpretation, causing frustration and conflict between colleagues.

Dr Alexandra Cleland and Dr Amy Irwin

You may well have experienced this yourself; taking offence at a message that you later found out was entirely innocent, or having your own message taken the wrong way. So, what’s going on and what can you do to avoid it?

When talking to someone face-to-face we get a lot of information from the tone of their voice and their facial expressions – both of which are obviously absent in an email or text message.

This means that messages become much more open to interpretation by the receiver…“So, was that comment meant to be sarcastic, humorous, angry, or something else entirely…?”

Without the immediate feedback you get from face-to-face conversation – like a smile or a knowing glance – it’s easy for things to be misconstrued. What the sender meant, and how their message is interpreted, can then become two very different things.

This lack of feedback is particularly problematic because language is generally more ambiguous than we think. Sentences can take on different meanings depending on how we interpret their structure, with a common issue being the lack, or misuse, of punctuation.

For example: “The workshop covered time, travel and management strategies” reads differently from: “The workshop covered time travel and management strategies”.

Additionally, words can have many different meanings: “Please include a picture of a bat” could mean different things depending on your interpretation of the word “bat”.

Then there is the minefield of email etiquette to navigate. From the way you begin and end an email: Dear? Hi? Hiya? Fit like… to the degree of formality required when texting your boss; use the wrong phrasing and you are in danger of appearing unprofessional, uncaring or even rude.

You should also choose your greeting and sign-off wisely as the way in which you start your email sets the tone of the message and the way in which you sign off can be interpreted as an indication of your level of respect and warmth towards the receiver.

The choice will depend on the person you are messaging, but adding “warm”, “best” or “kind” to the simple “regards” is usually going to increase positivity of tone. A lack of any greeting, such as beginning with the receiver’s name only, or omitting a sign-off, generally appears abrupt and could be considered rude.

And don’t forget your Ps and Qs – verbal indicators of good manners and politeness like “please” and “thank you” are likely to increase the overall politeness of your message and reduce any appearance of rudeness.

The good news is there are many ways to minimise misunderstandings and provide context to our emails and text messages. Don’t underestimate the power of emojis.

Psychologists in Norway report that emojis can provide context for the reader, indicating the mood of the sender and even replace non-verbal cues.

Emojis can indicate that the text is to be taken less seriously or that the sender is making a joke. Adding a smiley face can soften a directive or request, making it appear less abrupt. “Needs clarification” with a smiley added, softens an otherwise abrupt message. The smiley is the most popular emoji but there are a wide range of pictures, faces and gestures to choose from.

Finally, avoid ambiguity. Be careful to check that your meaning is clear before you press send. Reread emails to check that no information is missing and the language used is polite but direct. If you are requesting action from somebody, be clear about what you would like them to do and also who you are asking.

These are just a few tips to help you navigate the “new normal”. However you communicate, we recommend you do it regularly and with the occasional emoji thrown in for good measure 🙂

Dr Alexandra Cleland is a senior lecturer and Dr Amy Irwin is a lecturer at Aberdeen University