This morning, I’ve been witness to a series of email communications that show one of the great weaknesses of communication in general but electronic communication in general: it’s very difficult to convey tone well in written communication.

The scenario is this – a woman asks for a refund from a business because she is not getting the service she expected. The business director writes her back to explain why service is not as strong as she would like, detailing lots of facts and ideas about the business’s operating procedures and philosophy; his message is meant to be clear and compassionate, yet it is not read as so. When the women responds, she notes that she felt condescended to, shamed, and not fully considered in the response or the business practices of the company. Her response is compassionate, clear, and reasonable, despite her strong feelings about the communication from the director. Who has been the most successful communicator here? Of course, it’s the woman who conveyed the information she needed to convey and still managed to make the director and his board know that she is a kind, caring woman.

All of this is a matter of written tone. We all know words have the power to hurt – that old “sticks and stones” expression is a lie – but what we don’t always realize is how much a lack of careful wording can affect the WAY our words are read.

Take this example from several student cover letters I’ve read. It’s the final paragraph of the letter, the place where an applicant should request an interview. Here are two options I’ve seen:

Thank you for taking the time to consider my qualifications. I will wait for your call to set up an interview.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my qualifications. I hope that I will have the opportunity to talk with you about them in person.

Which is the more effective closing in terms of tone? Of course, it’s the second one. The first is presumptuous and puts the reader in the place of having to respond to the applicant; that’s a big NO for a potential employee; employers want to see people who consider that working for them would be a privilege, not vice versa. The second sentence, however, focuses the same general request on how much of an “opportunity” it would be to have an interview and does not presume the applicant will be given one. It’s a subtle difference but a crucial one. Here, tone makes all the difference.

So be careful about how you say things as much as what you say. Think about how you would respond to what you have written if you were the reader – think about the reader’s emotional state, need for information, and position in relationship to you. Who has the power? Who has the potential to feel the most threatened or offended? Finally, be kind and caring, even when you have to deliver bad news. A compassionately word rejection can be a powerful thing.

The Many Faces of Miscommunication“The Many Faces of Miscommunication” by Julie R. Neidlinger