Email at Work

by Barbara Buffton

Dangerous assumptions

Have you ever fired off an email and then wondered why the recipient didn’t respond at all or did respond but not in the way you expected?

Because they are so easy to write and send, people can sometimes send something without much thought and without reflecting greatly on how it might be received. So how can you ensure you get the response you want and intend? First of all, check where your message tends to go wrong. Where might it fall off the ‘communication cycle’?

  1. Was your message clear?

Maybe you assumed the recipient would understand the urgency without you having to spell it out and without you giving a deadline for a response.

  1. Did someone read it?

You may receive a ‘read receipt’ message, but this only means that the email has landed in someone’s inbox; it does not necessarily mean that the email has been read properly.

If no ‘read receipt’ message has been received, the recipient may or may not have read your email. They might be sick, on holiday or just too busy to respond. Or they have turned off the ‘read receipt’ functions in their email client.

  1. Has the recipient understood what you wrote?

Some people only scan emails and can miss details or subtleties.

  1. How do you know if the recipient agrees with your message?

If there is no response or not the response you anticipated, it may be that you were not clear enough (or influential enough) in your request.

  1. If agreement is reached, is action then taken?

Someone might agree with you that action needs to be taken, but unless you spell out who is to do what and when, then things might not happen. Another problem is that you may not find out that no action has been taken until it is too late.

Who is responsible for getting it right? You, the sender, of course!

Be brief or quick?

I once emailed a German client I had never met in person. She sent me back a very long, hugely detailed email. At the end of it she wrote in English ‘please be brief in your reply’. My initial response was annoyance (anger even) that it was obviously all right for her to use a lot of words, but not for me. Then I took a step back, put myself in her shoes and wondered whether language wasn’t the problem rather than her. Did she mean to say ‘please be quick’ rather than ‘brief’?

I will never know what she really meant, but I do know what I preferred to believe and which was more useful for our relationship. So I responded appropriately and quickly to her email.

I met her a couple of months later and knew I’d done the right thing, as she is the kindest and most considerate of people – and still my client. Who knows what would have happened had I followed my first instinct and responded to her in anger?