Emotional Emails… Geez!!

Communication Organizational leadership Respect


Key Point: I would like to see at least a 50 percent reduction in emails in our company! Why? Many are wasteful. When I see long strings of emails, I want to go, “aaugh,” like Charlie Brown from in the old Peanuts comic strip. (Millennials, click the link). Emails are best as short, punchy statements that confirm a dialogue or instruction. They’re not to be the medium for conversation. However, as much as I’d like email to mostly go away, the following are some guidelines I want to comment on. 

Andrew Brodsky is a Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School. He notes in a recent HBR blog that using email is simply unavoidable and stresses that we can balance the need to communicate while avoiding the potential pitfalls of using emotion in email. He claims the following as five concrete, research-based recommendations:

“Brodsky: Understand what drives how emails are interpreted. It is clear that people often misinterpret emotion in email, but what drives the direction of the misinterpretation? For one, people infuse their emotional expectations into how they read messages, regardless of the sender’s actual intent. Consider the email “Good job on the current draft, but I think we can continue to improve it.” Coming from a peer, this email will seem very collaborative; coming from a supervisor, it may seem critical.”

Rubis: Why use email at all if you’re concerned about emotional misinterpretation? Please call or have a video exchange and avoid the emotional confusion. Then send an email after to confirm commitments made. (Please don’t tell me you can’t get a hold of each other. That’s usually bunk and a phony excuse)!

“Brodsky: Mimic behaviors. What is the best way to convey emotions via email? Emoticons? Word choice? Exclamation points? There is no single correct answer; the proper cues will vary based on the context. For instance, you likely wouldn’t want to send a smiley face emoticon to a client organization that is known for having a very formal culture. Alternatively, you wouldn’t want to send an overly formal email to a very close colleague.”

Rubis: Ok, the concept of mimicking behavior as a way of demonstrating empathy is great. I have another idea. How about talking to each other instead of spending a bunch of time trying to select the right emoji? Geez?

“Brodsky: State your emotions. While mimicking behaviors can be effective, it is still a rather subtle strategy that leaves the potential for emotional ambiguity. The simplest solution to avoid any confusion is to just explicitly state the emotion that you want to relay in your email.”

Rubis: I like the idea of stating your emotion. Then what? How about having a conversation? Use that fancy smart phone and use FaceTime or Skype. Or would you prefer to hide behind the email? 

“Brodsky: Consider making some strategic typos. The answer is to do something that makes it seem like you are not actually “crafting” your message. Counter to most business advice, in situations where authenticity is very important, it may be worthwhile to consider making a couple of typos. What makes errors so believable is that they make you seem less competent: Why would someone ever make a typo if they were trying to impress me?”

Rubis: Create typos? Are you friggin’ kidding me? That’s authentic? Please ask Harvard to give you a rebate on your tuition. When I call you, should I use a fake stutter to make myself more vulnerable? Geez! 

“Brodsky: Disclose personal information. One of the benefits of email is that it tends to result in more straightforward and productive work communication, avoiding the potentially unproductive schmoozing that tends to occur in face-to-face conversations. However, disclosing personal information while making small talk actually helps lubricate social interactions by building familiarity and trust. Studies that have examined email negotiations show that simply having people engage in a brief “getting to know each other” interaction prior to negotiating can significantly improve negotiation outcomes. So if your interactions are longer-term, limit misinterpretations and increase the believability of explicit emotional displays by letting a fuller version of yourself show through.”

Rubis: “Avoid potentially unproductive schmoozing.” Huh? Holy #%+!!!  Sorry to break it to you Harvard folks, but face-to-face schmoozing involves making a personal emotional connection. And as much as a Harvard MBA might see that as unproductive, it is an effective, personal, emotional connection that makes business productive. As digital and mobile as we continue to become, that will ALWAYS be the case. Thank goodness!!

Character Moves: 

  1. Commit to making email way more effective by cutting it by 50 percent and refuse to use it for a problem solving method or a vehicle to manage emotional connections. When you see a string that involves an attempt at a problem solving conversation… Stop,call/video/meet face-to-face instead.
  1. Increase personal conversations by 50 percent. Make stronger personal emotional connections. Invest in each other rather than using a tool that was never meant for emotional exchange and relationship building! Never fake a typo or do anything inauthentic. Talk… Listen… With your mouth and ears and eyes, not with your keyboard.

 Connecting in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: This is hilarious, because as a millennial, I understand the inconvenience of emails, but I certainly appreciate and utilize the power of text… 90 percent of my relationships are dealt with via text (I probably send a few thousand a month). There’s also a movement I like that is something along the lines of sarcastically saying, “Thanks for holding the meeting that could have just been an email.” Bottom line: If it’s not useful, I don’t want to go. While calling or video chat is nice at times, it still requires me to pause Spotify. That can be as annoying as a meaningless email chain, or lengthy, boring meeting… And all millennials can probably agree, we’ve learned to accurately read tone, emojis, and emotion in text. Don’t believe me? Get a “k” or “fine” response, and see if you can’t read straight through that. I appreciate and crack up at the “baahhh, get off my lawn!!!” reaction from those who desire more face-to-face connection while their phone blows up with texts, but texting isn’t going anywhere. Face-to-face time is obviously hugely important, and wasteful emails are awful, so let’s meet in the middle… There’s one common denominator: Be straightforward and don’t waste people’s time or keep them guessing. If you send an email, send one. And sure, if you can say something face-to-face, then do it. Do it so we can all get back to the job at hand, and also keep listening to our favorite podcasts.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis