how can I write warmer emails without resorting to emojis?

A reader writes:

What tips can you offer to “soften” the tone of business emails without the use of emojis?

I tend to be direct in real life interactions, possibly erring on the side of blunt. Putting niceties in emails to others feels like a waste of their time, but some feedback I’m getting across multiple facets of professional interaction is that I can come off as terse or scolding. Yes, I am female, and this may be a factor in the critique. Since I function mostly as a consultant in a couple different professional spheres, I don’t have a manager to ask about this.

In person, I’m able to offset the directness with humor and smiling pretty successfully. I may be overreacting to people who don’t share my affinity for efficient point-making, and I can write a long and explanatory email as well as the next person (so it’s not length that’s the issue), but this is still a skill I’d like to develop.

Is my only recourse smiley faces? That feels so unprofessional in non-personal communication.

You need not resort to smiley faces!

Honestly, most emails that land with (some) people as overly brusque would land completely differently with just these additions:

1. A warm opening — like “Hey!” or “Hi there!” or so forth.

2. A warm sign-off — like “Thanks so much!”

Seriously, that’s it. That will warm up the vast majority of emails you send, and it’s incredibly easy.

Note, by the way, that there are exclamation marks there. I know those aren’t everyone’s bag, but if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to warm up your emails, those will do it. (Some people hate exclamation remarks and think they’re unprofessional, but in the vast majority of offices and in the vast majority of circumstances, they’re not at all unprofessional, particularly in the kind of usage above.)

Sometimes, too, you can warm up an otherwise brusque-sounding email by including a sentence of explanation, if you’re not already. It’s the difference between these:

Version 1: “Could you please send me the report on tacos by 12:00 today?”

Version 2: “Could you please send me the report on tacos by 12:00 today? I’ve got a client who’s coming by then and wants to see it.”

Version 2 makes it seem less like you’re just barking an order. (And sure, in Version 1 you said please and it’s not a command. But giving the little bit of context in Version 2 sounds warmer.)

Also, you said you’ve been told you sometimes come across as scolding. I don’t know exactly what kind of emails that refers to, but here’s an example of something that might sound scolding and an easy way to remedy it:

Version 1: “This isn’t the document I asked for. Can you please send me the correct file?”

Version 2: “Ah, this is actually the burrito report, but I need the taco write-up. Can you grab that one instead? Thank you!”

You wrote that putting niceties like that in email feels like a waste of the other person’s time — but while there are more words in the “nicer” versions of all of these, they only take about one second longer to read. And actually, they probably save time in the long-run, because you won’t have people feeling stung or put-off. Plus, relationships matter — so even if it did take slightly longer, it would still be worth it because people aren’t robots and the way they feel about you and about their work is actually important!

This might not be immediately intuitive to you if you don’t value work relationships in that way, but you may just need to take it on faith that other people do, and that showing them warmth and respect in ways they recognize actually gets better work results in the long-run … and having to type out “Hi!” and “Thanks so much!” isn’t so hard.

{ 470 comments… read them below }

      1. Secretary

        I was just coming here to say I want to read a report on tacos. I wouldn’t say no to a report on burritos either.

        1. costume teapot

          I can’t help but imagine what it’s like being in the sales reporting and analysis team at Chipotle. Are you just…hungry, all the time?

          1. Snark

            VP of Sales “Q3 sales of carnitas are up 119%, and….hnngh”

            All: “Mmmm…..carniiiiiitas…….”

            VP: “So good….”

            CEO: “Oh, fffs.”

          2. Captain Vegetable (Crunch Crunch Crunch)

            Unfortunately, as someone who does get reports on tacos and burritos, the novelty wears off very, very quickly.

            1. NeverNicky

              But I bet it’s still better than an analytics report about how a web page on ear wax removal is doing … which I had an intern prepare for me!

              1. Captain Vegetable (Crunch Crunch Crunch)

                To be honest, my favorite part of the reports is that one of the report compilers has handwriting that makes “k” look like “n”. All of the pork products amuse me, because I am a twelve year old masquerading as an adult.

          3. FoxyDog

            As a developer who works on an app for restaurant menus, the answer is yes. Especially when most of my day involves staring at the app…with photos of the food.

  1. Lil Fidget

    I’m glad somebody has flagged this for you, as for some of us more relationship-oriented (versus task-oriented) folks, it is actually quite disconcerting and distracting to get a terse email out of nowhere. It makes me think the sender is irritated with me (causing me to waste time trying to figure out what I did to offend you, when in reality, there isn’t anything) – and two, it makes me more likely to hesitate / treat you with kid gloves if I have to impart anything difficult to you. This, in my experience will only piss you off more when you get my wishy-washy email trying to explain that the file you want doesn’t exist or the person you’re looking for left.

    I’m also conscious that this can be a problem on my side, and am working not to read into terse emails too much, and be like, “oh that’s just so-and-so’s style.” But it’s a two way street.

    1. Indefinite Contract Attorney

      I, too, read the letter and went “Aha! A task-oriented person who has been “tasked” with interacting with relationship-oriented people!”

      1. Alli525

        YEP! In my naive, immediately-post-college life, I was living in the American South and (as a Yankee/carpetbagger) got really tired of what seemed to be the requisite 5 minutes of chit-chat before getting down to business. It’s slightly better now that I’m in NYC, but it’s also taken me many years to realize that my aversion to spending “work time” on pleasantries just isn’t shared by most people.

        My philosophy is: I like you just fine, I’ll get to know you during my breaks, on our walk to a meeting, or after work… but if I’m in the middle of a project, I just want to get through it efficiently, so please don’t ask me about my weekend plans, my haircut, or family life – because I certainly won’t be asking you about yours.

        1. Who the eff is Hank?

          As a Yankee who just spent the past two weeks on my first ever visit to the South, I share your sentiment. I went into a convenience store last week to get some toothpaste and by the end of the transaction I knew my cashier’s home town, favorite food, college major, and the story of how she got her ears pierced. She seemed lovely, but I just wanted my toothpaste!

          1. Alli525

            I’ll tell you what, the thing that really convinced me (while still in college) that I needed to move to NYC was an essay I read in New York Magazine (the library had a subscription). The gist of it, basically, was “If you live in a small town, it’s possible that the only human you’ll interact in a day with is the cashier at the Piggly Wiggly when you buy a gallon of milk. But everyone in NYC leaves each other alone because there are 7 million of us crammed onto this tiny island, and the only alone time we ever get is in public.”

            I probably read that article 12 years ago, and I still remember that gallon of milk line like it was yesterday. It’s so true, too – crying on the subway is perfectly normal (even if the tradeoff happens when people clip or paint their nails (!) on the subway).

            1. KE

              Boston here, and last week on the T I sat next to a girl who was gluing on fake nails. By the time I got into work I felt like I had a contact high from the glue. Ecchh.

            2. NotAnotherManager!

              That is really interesting! My mother-in-law (who lives in a very small town) remarks every time she visits that no one talks to each other on the DC Metro and doesn’t understand my horror at the idea of having to make chit-chat with people on the train. NO! That’s my music/podcast/reading time!

              1. Basia, also a Fed

                Someone glued themselves to me on the DC Metro last week and wouldn’t stop talking to me, no matter how disinterested I tried to act. It turns out she happened to be going to a job interview in my building (although not with my agency), and was very worried about finding it. I offered to show her where the building was, and had to listen to her incessant chatter as we walked to the building. I was surprised to hear her say that she grew up in DC and lived there all her life.

            3. Mr. Bob Dobalina

              I am a transplanted southerner, now living in a big northeastern city. My southern mother came for a visit and I took her on her first subway ride. We sat down and my mother starts looking around at all the other people ignoring each other, staring into space, reading, etc. After a few minutes, she said to me, a slight note of disbelief in her voice: “Are we all gonna sit here in silence? Don’t the people on the train talk to each other?”

              And there you have it, folks,

          2. memyselfandi

            My good friend from the South loves New England because she claims the conversation with the cashier is more likely to be about Kant. Admittedly, her experience in the North was in a college town.

        2. Specialk9

          Yup, I can see how that would land badly! Especially in the South.

          I’d adore to get to just launch into work, but have come to relax into the convention. It makes work work better.

        3. sunshyne84

          It’s always funny to me when New Yorkers are extra nice and say stuff like “we’re not all bad” and I’m just thinking to myself “we’re not all friendly”. lol

        4. miss_chevious

          I actually do an orientation for new members of my team letting them know that when they come to me, I expect work details first, then personal questions, because I got feedback about being too terse. This thing is, for me, if you stop by or call to ask me a question, I will be spending the whole chit chat time wondering what it is that is so important that you’re interrupting me, but not so important that we can’t talk about my dog first! So I tell them to ask the question first, so I can answer, and then, assuming nothing’s an emergency, we can have a more personal conversation (which I often initiate, to make sure they know I mean it).

      2. Red Reader

        Yup. I am a task oriented person who just last week got a complaint to my boss. My offense? Replying to an email of “This is an inappropriately colored teapot stripe” with “No, it’s not.” (The complaint will not cause me any trouble, my very relationship oriented boss was more annoyed with the coworker in question than with me, but dang.)

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If “no, it’s not” was the entirety of your email, I think a lot of people would read that as rude, actually. It needs a sentence of explanation about why it’s not, since clearly the other person thought differently.

          1. Red Reader

            Brevity comes back to bite me :) it was not technically email; it was a one-line (space limited) comment field in our teapot analysis software. Other mitigating factors: she reports to me and the directions she’s been given are that if she thinks a pre-painted teapot is painted inappropriately she is to specify why she thinks that, not just that she thinks that. (She also was just flat out factually wrong, it turns out she was basing her opinions of teapot color analysis on a llama dyeing guide.) Had she told me why she thought it was wrong like she was supposed to, I’d have provided more explanation.

            1. Red Reader

              I’m also willing to accept that I may have been in the wrong *shrug* but her complaining at my boss about it did not particularly reap her any goodwill.

            2. RUKiddingMe

              Ok, that makes sense, but maybe if you’d have said something like “why do you say that” (even though she knows she is supposed to do that…I get it) it would have softened it some and she wouldn’t have annoyed your boss/you.

          2. Specialk9

            Oh my gosh yes. That kind of terse rejecting email would burn my professional relationship with that person to the GROUND. I mean, it probably gave you, what, 2 minutes of happy feeling, but at what a long term cost.

            1. Student

              In my workplace, if you take every single terse email to heart as a rude snipe against you, then you’re going to spend most of your time at work being offended by every single co-worker you have. There are different norms for different places.

              I guess if somebody is really, sincerely angry at me, I’d hope they’d say something to me more directly that conveys they are angry at me. It’s okay to reject my ideas – sometimes my ideas are not good. Sometimes I am flat-out wrong. If you never have bad ideas or ideas that won’t work out, you either aren’t getting honest feedback from your co-workers on your ideas, or aren’t putting out any new ideas.

              1. Lalaroo

                I feel like you’re arguing against a point SpecialK9 wasn’t making. Thinking that responding “No it isn’t” is rude is not the same as saying that it would be rude to ever tell someone they’re wrong.

                For me personally, I’m okay with being told I’m wrong, but if you refuse to explain WHY I’m wrong, I think that’s crazy disrespectful. Am I not worth your time? Am I so stupid I couldn’t possibly understand it?

                1. Zillah

                  For me personally, I’m okay with being told I’m wrong, but if you refuse to explain WHY I’m wrong, I think that’s crazy disrespectful.
                  I agree – and I think there’s a lot to be said for making it clear that you’re engaged in the discussion and paying attention to the details – I find it really frustrating when someone responds to something I didn’t say and then tells me I’m wrong.

                  For example, rather than:

                  “No, we can’t push the teapot design competition deadline back.”

                  one could say,

                  “My concern here is that if we push the teapot design competition back two weeks, it’ll end up taking away most of our prep time for teapot painting, and we generally really need it. I think we’ve got to leave the deadline as it is.”

                  Part of softening things is respecting people enough to give them a reason you’re telling them they’re wrong. It doesn’t need to be detailed to be effective.

        2. Oxford Comma

          Let’s say I send out an email to a group of people asking if any of them can cover a shift.

          Not acceptable responses:
          No
          Why are you asking me? Why don’t you ask Jane?
          I’m busy.

          Acceptable responses:
          I really wish I could, but I have another commitment for that time period.
          I’m afraid I’m swamped with the [name of project] and can’t pick anything else up.
          I’m really sorry, but no, I can’t.

          It has nothing to do with being task or relationship oriented. The first set are rude and insubordinate. You’re not being respectful of me or my request. It takes very little to rephrase the response so that you’re being polite.

          1. CM

            I disagree that it has nothing to do with being task or relationship oriented. Because I, a task-oriented person, have different interpretations of those responses.

            To me, if someone asks a yes/no question and you reply “no,” that’s terse but not rude or insubordinate. (I agree that “why are you asking me” and “I’m busy” are rude.)

            On the other hand, I would resent if someone requires me to say I’m “really sorry” or pretend “I really wish I could” along with my “no” to a completely optional thing.

            1. Rookie Biz Chick

              YES – the patronizing tone of false and/or preemptive apologies makes my eyes roll!

              1. Leslie knope

                It’s not really an apology though. Like Alison mentions, it’s just a softening phrase.

                1. miss_chevious

                  As a woman in the workplace, I don’t apologize for things I haven’t done wrong. I’m not going to soften by saying “I’m sorry” for not taking something on that is outside my role. I’m going to say something along the lines of “I’m not available” or “I can’t take this shift” both of which would seemingly be unacceptable to Oxford Comma.

                2. Observer

                  It’s a softening phrase with specific connotations – and should not be necessary.

                  I do agree that a bald no is probably more curt than is wise, but expecting people to APOLOGIZE in this context is a really bad idea.

            2. Indoor Cat

              I always read that kind of “sorry” as “I’m sympathetic to your situation (having to get coverage abruptly),” rather than “I feel remorse or guilt because I can’t cover this shift.”

              The latter would definitely be over-the-top and melodramatic for sure. But, in many dialects of English (most notoriously in Canada, but also in other places), sorry is much more likely to express sympathy / empathy rather than guilt / remorse in 99% of contexts. In a very different setting, I knew people who often used the phrase, “I feel ya / I feel you,” or even not-quite-word phrases like, “ach!” as a gesture of sympathy before saying they couldn’t help or cover.

              1. Isabel Kunkle

                Agreed. “I’m sorry,” can be taking personal responsibility/feeling guilty about a situation, but it can also be a general “I regret that this situation exists and/or that I can’t change it.”

                (I have a few friends who responded to sympathetic-sorry with something like “Why? You didn’t…” and I eventually pointed out that if they preferred “God, that’s shitty,” I could use that instead.)

                1. Emma D

                  That’s definitely a much better response, and I would absolutely prefer that my friends say that. What you call “sympathetic sorry” doesn’t make me feel any better.

                1. Indoor Cat

                  Yes! So part of this is understanding the regionalisms in your specific area. I’d never heard “ach!” before moving here (Ohio), but it seems to entirely replace sympathetic “sorry.”

          2. Blargh

            I think “I’m busy” is a fine response for a mass-email response. You haven’t reached out to one person asking them to cover a shift because they know x,y and z… you’re just “spamming” a group asking for availability for shift coverage (a yes/no answer).

            1. RUKiddingMe

              Agreed.”I’m busy” is fine. I also don’t like the idea of having to soften it with things like “I’m sorry” (I’m not) or “wish I could”(I don’t). “I’m busy” is a perfectly reasonable response.

            2. Cat Herder

              Truly, “so sorry, I’m busy” takes very little longer to type and is so much more polite than “no” or “I’m busy” that I can’t see why anyone would object to it.

              It’s a non-optional social convention. Social conventions don’t have to be logical — they just are.

              1. Student

                That is specific to you, though. It’s not actually a broad social convention. It’s a social convention in your specific social circle.

                In my social circle, “No” or “I’m busy” would be acceptable responses. They would actually be preferred, in my social circles, to any of the responses that Oxford Comma cited as “acceptable in Oxford Comma’s social circles.

                Those suggested responses:
                I really wish I could, but I have another commitment for that time period.
                I’m afraid I’m swamped with the [name of project] and can’t pick anything else up.
                I’m really sorry, but no, I can’t.

                In my social circle these would all come off as unctuous. Unpleasantly subservient. Overly apologetic, weak, excessive unnecessary information. Verbose. Perhaps looking to be seen as a work-martyr or trying to drum up unnecessary sympathy for relatively normal working or life conditions. You’d be viewed worse for these than for the terse responses.

                I don’t doubt that your and Oxford Comma are correctly relaying the state of your social circles and the conventions thereof. However, please do not question the existence and validity of my social circle and proper social conventions. They exist. They are just as valid as yours. Your social conventions, and mine, are both optional.

                1. Lalaroo

                  You’ve mentioned social circles a lot, but Oxford Comma never did. In fact, they clearly stated that the unacceptable responses would be “insubordinate,” so I think it’s much more likely they were talking about professional environments where the asker is the supervisor.

                2. Oxford Comma

                  You could leave out the sorry entirely. “Dear Jane, I can’t. I’m swamped.” It’s one example. In another thread I complained about people who send me “You’re welcome” emails. You need to find that line between blunt and unctuous.

                  I work in an academic library. A junior colleague was asked to work on an article. He declined. While he had valid reasons, he was super blunt about it to a faculty member outside the library. The faculty member was quite senior and somebody pretty important and it turned into a whole big thing because my colleague basically said “No. I have other priorities. Wakeen”

                  I can’t be certain obviously, but if he had written something like “Dear Dr. So-and-So, Thank you for the opportunity to write about the remarkable number of people named Jane who work in the teapot industry in the American Journal of Teapots. Unfortunately, I am involved in several other projects and I cannot devote the time to this right now. I look forward to working with you in the future,” I think that would have gone over a lot better.

                  Who is the email going to? What is that person’s preferred style of communication? Has something been said about your style of communication? (Like the LW is sensing). What flies in your work environment? All of these are things that you need to take into account.

                3. Zillah

                  Something doesn’t have to be universal to be a broad social convention, and expressing some measure of emotion is indeed a broad social convention, even if people in your social circle don’t feel that way and are quick to judge people as “weak.” (What is this even, survival of the fittest??)

                  I agree that those responses are a little much, but something like,

                  “Hey, Jane! I can’t take that shift, but good luck!”

                  “The teapot patterns project sounds like it’ll be really interesting, but I don’t have time to jump in right now.”

                  “Hi! I’m actually busy that weekend, but I hope you have fun!”

                  are all other ways of putting “No, I can’t”/”No, I don’t want to,” and the vast majority of people will indeed find them more friendly/approachable.

              2. CanCan

                “Sorry, can’t.” would be an acceptable response where I am.
                “No.” as a response to a request would not be.
                Without a “sorry”, you’d need some context/reason.

                Plain “No” may be ok as an answer to a question that is not a request. Like “Has this report been reviewed by the manager?” Even then, it would be better to add more language after No, even if it’s meaningless. (“No, it hasn’t.”)

            3. Kelsi

              It comes across as very rude to us relationship-oriented folks. “I’m unavailable” would be more professional, even if you don’t want to soften it with a “sorry.”

              For a little more context, “I’m busy” carries the connotation of “I’m busy (with something more important and you’re bothering me).” It’s not what the responder intends in this situation, but it’s often used that way and so without tone that’s how it will be read.

          3. Close Bracket

            “No” and “I’m busy” are not rude. They are terse, which might not be your preference, but they are far from rude. If you were truly asking, they are not insubordinate, either. If “no” is not an acceptable answer, don’t ask. Tell.

            1. JSPA

              “nope”
              “no can do”
              “sorry”

              are each nearly as terse, and a bit more human.

              However, “no” is a perfectly acceptable response–after all, “yes” certainly would be!

            2. Zillah

              I think that this is highly dependent on the context – and the reality is that many people will interpret “No” and “I’m busy” as at least a little rude and unfriendly. You may decide that it’s worth it to risk coming off that way, but you will come off that way to many people, whether or not you think it’s rude.

          4. mkt

            I disagree and think you’re looking at this through the lens of a person who is relationship oriented. In your example both ‘no’, and ‘I’m busy’ sounds like perfectly competent answers that aren’t rude, just direct without any of the lubrication /social niceties that you personally may not be used to. It’s not insubordinate if you’re asking peers for availability (versus if a manager asked their employee to complete a task and said no). As well, I don’t see any disrespect because they are directly responding to your question – the second response, granted, is.

            As a task oriented person and I need a response to confirm something – just yes / no is a completely acceptable answer.

            1. Rusty Shackelford

              Huh. Apparently I’m a relationship-oriented person and didn’t realize it, because they seem terse to the point of rudeness to me.

              1. Kathleen_A

                Me too! (Another task-oriented person here, or so I have always thought and been led to believe.)

                Look, if it would sound rude on person – and come on, a flat “No” often does sound rude – it sounds about 1000 times ruder in an email.

                1. mkt

                  We’ll have to agree to disagree. In my opinion answering a yes/no question with either response would be acceptable same in person as over email. Just different perspectives, I guess.

                2. Ellen

                  In my experience, every word that isn’t a firm no can and will be used against you in the ensuing discussion. Literally, I had an exchange over going to a company managers party (where said party would and historically always has involved both illegal and immoral shenanigans and it is worth mentioning that I’m a married teatotaler) where I said I was sorry, I couldn’t go. My boss demanded to know why not, offered to change the date of the party. Argued with me about me not fitting in, then demanded of my “not her employee” husband what was wrong, that I couldn’t go. I ended up going, watching my higher ups get hammered and stoned, make out with each other, while repelling people demanding to know why I wouldn’t at least TRY it to s variety of potentially disastrous options. ANY word past “no” would trigger this sort of thing on any subject. So, my answer can be the complete sentence, typed with all the smiling kindness in the world, the complete sentence “no”. Anything more can be a trap.

                3. Michaela Westen

                  Ellen, what you experienced here is complete disrespect and it also seems abusive, at least to me. They had no respect for your preferences and your right to decide what you do and where you go outside of work. Very toxic!
                  I hope you were able to get out of there to someplace where they respect you.

                4. Zillah

                  @Ellen – I feel like that’s less about the specific words you used and more about people being absolutely awful.

              2. Cat Herder

                I’m *not* relationship oriented and I agree that they are terse to the point of rudeness — especially as an email, where the recipient does not get anything but the words, no facial expression, no tone of voice.

                Take an extra two seconds and put in the polite stuff. Or don’t and let people think you are rude — if that’s ok with you, cool, but the OP wanted to know how to “soften” emails because it’s been flagged as a problem.

            2. Therese

              The reason ‘no’ and ‘I’m busy’ are rude not acceptable is because they don’t actually even answer the boss’s request. Extra work has to be picked up- no one would want to do that so what the boss needs to know is who is the best placed to do that / why a person is not. Everyone is busy and everyone would surely want to say ‘no’.

              1. mkt

                It’s not clear from the post above if it’s a boss requesting availability from their subordinates, though. If it was, then providing justification why you may/not be available may be personally beneficial, sure. But then the boss would also have the authority to use whatever justification they want (seniority, etc) to assign work.
                ^ Because even if you do provide reason and the boss deems it not good enough (gaming conference, sleeping in, personal health, etc) it still may be not considered regardless.

              2. Lioness

                They do answer the question. The question being “can you cover a shift?”

                They are on their own not rude. And hard disagree with Kathleen_A. No is a complete sentence. It is not rude to just say “no” in every context. Certainly with a certain tone in can sound rude. But it’s not rude in itself.

                1. Indoor Cat

                  See, so here’s the thing. With a certain tone, no sounds rude– we both agree, I think, that tone is important to whether or not “no” is rude. But if I only type the word “no,” I’m not giving any indication of tone, so the recipient is going to fill in the blank (what my tone might be) based on their own preconceptions.

                  And while I may want to make the argument that that’s *their* problem– that they’re reading rudeness into what I write due to their own cultural or social understanding, rather than clearly hearing only what I say– the truth is that it becomes my problem if it affects my relationship with them or my workflow when we communicate.

                  Wise therapy advice goes, “You can only clean up your side of the street.” I can’t make someone else not bring their social and cultural context into how they perceive what I write. I *can* control the actual words and phrases I write and communicate with.

                  Hence, adding an extra phrase or sentence to “no.”

                2. Kathleen_A

                  Yes, Indoor Cat has explained it very well. Certainly there are times when you just need to say “no” and nothing but “no.”

                  But I would submit that when someone is asking you a reasonable question is *not* one of those times. If you have a job where people sometimes cover other people’s shifts, “Can you cover a shift?” is a reasonable question. And a reasonable question deserves a polite answer. While “No” isn’t automatically rude, it will almost certainly come across as rude in an email. So why use it in answer to a non-rude question?

          5. A username for aam

            Most of the shift workers I’ve supervised were in school or worked multiple jobs, and therefore were answering my help request during class or on a break at their other job. “No” is fine by me, since they are off the clock and doing me a favor by answering immediately instead of waiting until they were more available.

            1. Therese

              This side-thread is quite interesting. I kind of agree with you on one hand- why do you even have to say sorry? But then on the other hand I think the reason you do respond in a warmer way / throw in a sorry is to contribute to a general sense of good will and cohesiveness.

            2. Kathleen_A

              Under circumstances like this “I’m sorry” doesn’t really constitute an apology. It’s just a way of softening that “no.” When someone says “Hi, how are you?” they don’t really want to know about every ailment that the person has suffered since last they spoke, and when someone says, “Good morning,” they are not informing you that the morning is good. All of this stuff is just a little bit of lubricant to grease the getting-along-with-others wheels.

              In short, “I’m sorry but I can’t” doesn’t mean “I am simply devastated that I am going to have some well deserved time off rather than working.” It is simply a gentle way of saying “I am not going to do what you’re asking, but I am telling you so very nicely.” It’s just a way of being *nice*.

              1. RG

                I get softening language, I just don’t agree with this particular instance. “No, I can’t” seems perfectly fine for me – I’m not a fan of how we use sorry as a catch all because we don’t often treat it that way, if that makes sense.

                1. Former Admin Turned Project Manager

                  “No, I can’t” seems more polite to me than just “No.” I can’t articulate why, but it does.

            3. Oxford Comma

              As Kathleen_A pointed out, if I asked you to do this in person, would you just say “No.” Gonna guess that you would qualify it or couch it in more polite terms. Now it’s an email and that’s already pretty impersonal. A blunt “no” is not going to read well.

              You don’t have to be all “OMG, I wish I had known about this sooner!!!! Or I totally would have picked it up!!!! :(” Whereas, you could say something along the lines of, “I can’t. I’m working on the Teapot Project and it’s taking all my time.” “I can’t. I have another commitment.”

                1. Oxford Comma

                  Well, you’re the best judge of your own workplace and your supervisor. You’ll have to allow me to the best judge of mine.

                  Just telling me a blunt no wouldn’t fly where I am. And since a lot of our projects are not mandated, but require cooperation, if you flat out told me “no,” later on when you came to me for help, I would not be inclined to sign up. For the record, I work in an academic library and with mostly salaried faculty. There’s a certain amount of politeness and softening that’s expected from men and women here. “Shifts” would be to cover reference hours.

                2. Ellen

                  Yeah, me too. My experiences, detailed elsewhere, have shown me that anything more than a no will be used to leverage an argument over explaining why not and being told my reasoning is insufficient.

              1. JSPA

                Doesn’t this veer perilously close to requiring TMI in other circumstances (as when pumping someone for exactly what their medical appointment is about)?

                A conversational question arguably requires a more conversational answer.
                A “please tell me yes/no” question really should only require a yes/no answer!

            4. Kes

              It’s not necessarily apologizing though – I read ‘Sorry, I can’t’ as ‘I regret that I am unable to help’, which expresses that you are unable to help while qualifying that you aren’t unwilling to help in general. The risk of just saying ‘No’ is that it comes across as brusque and that you just don’t want to talk to or help your coworkers and boss – and coming off as unwilling to help can harm your standing and relationships at work.

          6. Marcy

            I am a task oriented person, and I also find “No” to be an unacceptable response, because there’s no attempt to explain your reasoning behind it. Is the answer “No (because I am too busy)” or “No (because I hate your guts).” If you find the softening apology language too fake, I would at least strive for “No, I am not available that day” if you’re talking to a peer. If you’re talking to your boss and make that statement, it is fair to expect the boss to ask “What are you working on that’s keeping you so busy?”

          7. AnonInfinity

            I’m an adult, and I’m not sweetly apologizing that I can’t/won’t/don’t want to pick up optional work outside of my regularly scheduled shifts/work hours. The responses you have marked as “acceptable” all demand emotional labor from your subordinates and/or outright lying (i.e., “I have another commitment” when the honest truth is “no, I don’t want to”).

            There is nothing wrong with “no, I’m busy” or “no, I’m not available” or “no, that won’t be possible for me” to a request of “can you cover a shift?” Expecting people to lay on false apologies, false excuses, or guilty remorse for not wanting to do something you want is…icky. YMMV. (I’ve had the boss who screamed at an associate attorney for exactly 1.7 hours because he did not say “good morning, Boss” with enough “pep.” So, my mileage certainly does vary with being expected by management to feign ooey-gooey niceties. And, for what it’s worth overall in general for this general topic, I appreciate the coworkers who are blunt, direct, and just reasonably say what they reasonably freaking mean.)

            1. Jaydee

              Man…1.7 hours of yelling. That’s terrible, but also that’s 3.4 attorney hours that weren’t billed. That’s at least many hundreds of dollars of yelling!

              1. AnonInfinity

                It was a very, very bad day, but the boss often wasted lots of billables on yelling at people, threatening them, and wanting us to all play “happy family in a law firm house.” S/he ranted at me for about 2 hours once because the secretary only washed the coffee cups on Friday and how awful it was that Boss couldn’t come in every day to a clean sink.

                There’s a reason s/he can’t keep people except the 20-year secretary who’s too shredded and beaten down to leave.

                God, I hated that job.

            2. Leslie knope

              I long for the days when people didn’t use emotional labor as shorthand for “thing I don’t want to do.” this is so completely over the top. Yes, you certainly are projecting based on your experience.

              1. AnonInfinity

                Being expected to say “I really wish I could, but I have another commitment for that time period” (per this thread’s OP) to make your boss feel “respectful of me or my request” (per this thread’s OP) when you really mean “I don’t want to do this” (per your statement) is pretty much the definition of emotional labor, which is generally “managing feelings and expressions to fulfill emotional requirements” (per totally all the time accurate Wikipedia).

                Because of my experiences with The Crazy, I don’t do that stuff. I’m an adult. If I don’t want to pick up an optional shift, I’m not going to apologize and make up some fake commitment. I’m going to say, “No, I can’t do that.” I very much want to get rid of the “fake apology + made up event = hoping Boss leaves me alone” version of respectful polite office politics.

          8. e

            In the spirit of a question about the tone of people’s responses, I think it’s important to note that the tone of the question makes a big difference.

            Reasonable exchange:
            – Hey, I’m currently deathly ill and won’t be able to make it in today. Would any of you be able to cover my shift?
            – Oh no, that’s awful! I’m sorry, but I’m busy that day.

            Also a reasonable exchange, imo:
            – Are you available to cover a shift at 6:00 on Monday? Let me know ASAP.
            – no

            I also think characterizing the response “No” as “blunt” or “flat” projects a certain demeanor that might not apply. It’s a simple answer that can take on a lot of implications and I think it’s fair for the onus to be as much on the recipient as the sender to keep that in mind.

          9. Cassie the First

            Hmmm, I’d propose a theory that a negative response isn’t necessary – what is the purpose, aside from letting the OP know that someone *can’t* cover the shift? Like if I send out the email to 10 people, I don’t need 9 “so sorry, I can’t”. I just need that 1 or 2 “yes” or “sure!” responses. It’s like when a teacher or public speaker asks “does anyone have any questions?” You wouldn’t answer loudly “no!” because you yourself don’t have any questions. You just stay silent so those that do have questions can speak up (or not, if they are shy about it).

            It does help close the loop, so to speak, so that the OP doesn’t sit there wondering if the emails (outgoing and incoming) got lost in cyberspace and maybe someone can in fact cover the shift, but other than that – I’d say a negative response might not be necessary (YMMV of course). If I did have to respond, I’d probably go with “unfortunately, I’m not available”. I’m not going to apologize for something that doesn’t need an apology.

          10. Lord snooty

            “No” to a short mass-emailed yes/no question seems perfectly fine to me.

            Maybe you should ask nicer? And/or get a thicker skin?

          11. TeamTerse

            I generally prefer terse myself. After thinking about it, though, I can see it can make a difference with people you many not have a close relationship with. For the shift coverage example, with a plain “no” from someone you haven’t swapped with before, you don’t know if it’s “no, never, I don’t like you” or “no, I can’t cover this time but I’d be happy to swap another time.”

          12. Observer

            “no” is insubordinate? Why? This is not an email INSTRUCTING your report to do something, but a question about availability. If the answer to the question about availability is “not available”, why is it insubordinate to say so? And why is someone required to apologize or find excuses for not being available at a time where they are not scheduled?

      3. Marcy Marketer

        Haha I am a task oriented person who also sees building relationships as a task to accomplish. Glad I’m not alone.

    2. BRR

      Tangential to the task vs. relationship-oriented people thing, I think an added challenge is that email can easily sound harsher than it was meant to be. I am a task-oriented person and try to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to email tone but I have one coworker whose emails always feel incredibly harsh. They are a relationship-oriented person and always nice to me in person but you would never know it from their emails.

    3. RainyDay

      As a relationship-oriented person who recently changed jobs and now works much more closely with task-oriented tech people, this just put everything in context for me! A lightbulb moment on a Wednesday.

    4. AK

      I’m so glad this came up today, as a new manager I’ve been struggling recently with a new hire who I now realize is likely more task-oriented than I’d previously understood, so all of these examples are giving me a great point to start our check-in conversation tomorrow.

    5. NotAnotherManager!

      On the flip-side of this, if I found out someone was tying themselves in knots over a direct, no-frills email that was not intended to convey any sort of upset, I would also feel that I had to walk on eggshells around them, lest I hurt their feelings just trying to convey information or ask for help. Somewhere, there is a middle ground. I’m going to use please, thank you, and exclamtion points to try to sound less severe, but I also need the relationship-oriented folks to understand that, “Can you please send me that file?” really just means, “Hey, there’s a file, I need it, and I understand you’re the right person to ask.” and is not any sort of commentary on them as a person.

      Also, for task-oriented people, a direct response is going to be best, you don’t need to soften it. “Bob doesn’t work here any more, but here’s his replacement’s number” is a perfectly fine response to “I need you to send me Bob’s phone number right away.” It’s not *your* fault Bob’s gone and didn’t leave any turnover info. :)

  2. Lil Fidget

    It’s funny that this came up today, I’ve been reflecting on it myself, as I’ve realized that the office culture I’ve just joined (great density of lawyers than at my last job!) has shorter, terser emails as standard. I think my emails are sounding overly warm and personal, so I’m going to try to tone it down and be more to the point. Of course, signing off “thanks so much” is universally acceptable, I’d say.

    1. Amber T

      “Thanks so much” would be overkill in my office. My boss is a lawyer, who is a very friendly (and talkative!) person, but his emails are always the bare minimum. Which… I really like, actually.

      When I started at my current job, I overanalyzed and overthought everything, and overstated everything, and my emails would be a mile long. And when I would ask a question and get a”Yes” or “No” – and that’s it, it felt weird… like, did I do something wrong? Now my emails are no longer a mile long (maybe a quarter mile), and I definitely overthink the difference between ending my emails with “Thanks” and “Thank you,” but one word/low word count responses actually make me feel better (and I roll my eyes when I get long flowy emails from vendors).

      1. B

        Same here – “Thanks so much!” would definitely be overkill at my workplace (we are in Europe, I think we do tend to be a bit less… flowery than many places in the US). When I feel like I’m asking a lot, I’ll upgrade my sign-off from “Thanks,” to “Many thanks,” or even “Thanks a lot,”. Or if I’m not asking for anything, “All the best,” is more to me than “Best,” or “Best wishes,”.

        1. Liz

          Any of these sign-offs would be perfectly fine in the US.

          This is a silly generalization anyway considering how many different cultures existing the US. You really think New Yorkers can be described as “more flowery” than Europeans?? I can only imagine that to be the case if Europeans literally refuse to speak to each other and communicate only through grunts and stares.

          1. Indigo lime

            Did you just miss the “many places” qualification B included, or are you deliberately misconstruing the point just so you can be pissy?

          2. Zillah

            Not at all the point, but as a lifelong New Yorker, it is not my experience that we’re just a step above “grunts and stares” when we’re communicating with colleagues or friends.

    2. De-Archivist

      It’s hard to say whether they’re overly warm or personal without actually reading your emails, but as long as you’re not asking personal questions or making personal statements, they’re probably okay. It really depends on your audience. You can actually probably be a little shorter with your work buddy. “Here’s the taco report. Sorry!” Someone you don’t know as well or senior to you might need a little more.

      You could always ask a work buddy, “Hey, be honest. Are my work emails a little touchy-feely?” Just see what they say.

      I try not to read emails or texts in any tone of voice specifically because of OP’s issues — it’s difficult to infer meaning from written words. Less headaches for me trying to decipher people’s hidden agendas if I just take their words at face-value.

      So generally, if you wrote me an email that says says “hope you enjoyed your vacation, glad you’re back,” I would take it to mean that you hope I enjoyed my vacation and enjoy having me in the work place. Not that you were overbearingly cheerful and needed to knock it off.

    3. Rosemary7391

      My boss sometimes sends one word emails, rarely do I get a whole sentence. It threw me a bit at first, but now I understand that’s just how he does email. It’s efficient, it works, I get the response I need in a timely manner. And if I’m really bothered I just mentally translate it from “quick email language” to “normal polite language” in the same way one might translate “text speak” to “normal English” (although hopefully not the latter at work!).

    4. Cat Herder

      Sure, you have to fit in with the office culture.

      I do like the picture of a “great density of lawyers”!

  3. The Original K.

    OP, you’d be surprised by how far “Good morning!” and “Have a good night/weekend!” go in professional communications – or even just a few strategically placed exclamation points.

    1. MLB

      This! I tend to be more direct in my emails, because in my experience, if I need information from someone and add too much text, they just don’t read it and I have to ask more than once to get the answer. But I always add an intro and outro pleasantry to it.

    2. Blue

      I frequently find myself adding these kinds of phrases to an otherwise complete email, right before I send it. It’s literally: write the direct email I want to write, remember to insert 1-2 niceties to open/sign off, hit send. Softens it a bit but the critical part of the message is still streamlined. It’s worked pretty well for me!

      1. CM

        I do this too!

        First draft: Please send me file X by tomorrow.

        Second draft: Hi Bob, Could you please send me file X? I need it by tomorrow so I can meet the TPS report deadline. Thanks! CM

        (Probably still terse-ish but I’m a lawyer so I can get away with it.)

        1. Amber T

          Your second draft is super friendly for all the lawyers I’ve worked with. Not that terse is unfriendly, either – I work in an office where “Please send me X file” or “Where is X file saved?” or “Here’s the file” is 100% the norm.

          Maybe I’m the weird one here, but if you added anymore information or additional flowy stuff, I’d be put off.

          (I’m a New Yorker, if you can’t tell.)

          1. CMart

            I do think position/hierarchy matters here. I can see lawyers being busy/important and just shooting out a request like “please send me X file” to an employee or a peer is perfectly acceptable.

            As someone much lower in the organization I would never dream of sending anyone, not even a peer, something as terse as “Please send me X file”. It’s a little demanding, no? And I’m not in a position to demand anything from anyone. “Can you send me X file? Thanks!” is warmer and phrased as a request while taking up barely any more text-space or time.

            1. Cassie the First

              I usually start typing out “please send me” but change to “can you please send me”. The “please send me” is reserved for emails when I’m super annoyed (but can’t show it). Usually it has to do with annoyance that the recipient should have emailed something but didn’t, and I’m annoyed that I have to send out an email ask for it.

              I’m pretty indiscriminate when it comes to hierarchy, though – if it’s a professor that has been delinquent, they are going to get a “please” without the “can”. Actually, for people that I have friendly exchanges with – I’m more inclined to just write “can you send?” without the “please”. The please feels a bit passive-aggressive (I know it’s not, but it just feels that way to me).

              1. Amber T

                I sort of mention this down thread, but it’s wild to me how much this varies per industry (something to keep in mind if I ever change). I routinely send out emails to C-level staff (ours and outside our company) that (without giving too much information of what I do away) sounds like:

                “Members of X Committee,

                Please see attached for X document. Please ‘instructions given’ and return to me at your earliest convenience/by August 20th.

                Thank you, and please let me know if you have any questions.”

                The one thing that’s never been called out but always annoyed me was how basically every sentence starts with ‘please’ – that’s my nicety. That’s how my predecessor did it and that’s how I do it now.

                For me, it’s less blunt and more formal. The people I work with are busy – they want an email that gives them brief instructions what to do, and that’s it. Niceties and small talk are saved for phone calls and in person meetings.

                1. Cassie the First

                  I had a coworker who would use “please note” multiple times in an email (across most of the emails she sent out), to the point where her grandboss told her boss to talk to her about it. I think she was trying to be polite but it was just too much.

                  I’d probably write:
                  “Deear X Committee Members,

                  X document is attached for your review. Please send your revisions to me by August 20th.

                  If you have any questions, please let me know.*

                  Thanks,
                  Cassie”

                  *I would include this line if I have fewer interactions with the committee members (e.g. external stakeholders). If they are people that I regularly work with (e.g. faculty), I’d probably leave it out since I figure they will email me if they have questions.

          2. Holly

            I’m a lawyer in NYC and the second draft is way more in line with my office’s communications except for someone higher up the chain.

        2. Jaydee

          Your second draft is pretty much my default for an initial email/response. I’ll cut the greeting and sign-off later into the chain. But I have a visceral anxiety reaction to the really short emails like your first draft (and unfortunately for me, that is my current boss’s style). It takes constant effort and a post-it on my monitor to remind me that brevity does not mean anger. I try not to be too wordy, but I still want to be polite.

      2. The Original K.

        I do the same thing. “Good morning!” or “Thanks!” are pretty rote for me by now, but I still give emails a once-over before sending to make sure that they’re not too formal (as is my tendency with business communication).

      3. crookedfinger

        Same here! If it’s an important, but not super urgent email, I’ll wait a while then re-read/edit before sending to make sure I’m sounding the way I intend. I seem to bounce back and forth between too terse and over-explaining.

    3. k.k

      I’ve had to retrain myself to start doing this (at previous jobs this wasn’t a culture norm). It’s ecspecislly useful if you work in a different office or otherwise don’t see that person often. If they have a nice chat with you at the water cooler everyday, a brief email isn’t so bad. But if that email is the only interaction they’ve had with you this week it’s a big differences.

    4. JT

      Yep! My job is 90% giving people critical feedback via email (I’m a technical editor), so without a couple of intentionally injected niceties, I would sound like a cold-hearted monster. I often end with “Hope all’s well!” and I consciously dial up the exclamation points if I’m giving particularly negative feedback.

    5. Triple Anon

      Yes! The trouble with being warm is that it can make emails more long-winded or potentially confusing. The advantage of being straight to the point is that it saves time and avoids misunderstanding. It’s best if you can use just a few words to make your short, direct email sound friendly.

    6. MsMaryMary

      “Happy Friday!” is universally popular, as is “Have a great weekend!”

      Depending on your office culture, try responding to a successful request with a quick “Thanks!” or “That was super quick! You’re awesome.” Some people hate the extra mail in their inbox, but lots appreciate the thought. I like to tell people they’re my favorite coworker of the day.

    7. Lilian

      Yes, I came to say this! I use the “I hope you had a nice weekend” kind of phrases to soften things up, and I find some of my customers inject weather-related comments on things they might have seen in the news, like “I’ve heard it’s really hot in (my area) this week, hope you’re fine!”.
      I also adjust my writing style to my customers – some of them do actually use smileys and more light language, so I resort to an occasional smiley only with them, I think everyone is happy when we are on the same level of warmth.

  4. Snark

    OP, I get the desire and need to be direct and on-point – I work with a whole lot of current and former armed forces members, and they want and expect the bottom line up front. But…I just spent at least 15 seconds wondering if I should trim my beard a little shorter, and now I’m writing this; the inefficiency of adding just a little bit of padding so a terse email doesn’t have quite so many hard edges is not really a consequential waste of anyone’s time. Let yourself off the hook for this. My suspicion is that if you adopted just a little more colloquial and friendly tone, even the directness wouldn’t matter much – work on adding to your emails the written equivalents of your disarming smiles and humor.

    1. Snark

      Example:

      “Sir,

      Will be to your facility at 1130 hours for scheduled Tier 2 inspection. Please have all required documentation ready to present.”

      Or….

      “Good morning sir,

      We’ll be over to your shop at 1130 hours for the Tier 1. If you could pull your checklists before we get there, that’d speed things up. Thanks!”

      It’s just that bit more casual and friendly, see?

      1. uranus wars

        This is a great example. My directness can also border on too formal.

        I now have a great boss who has actively helped me work on this with similar examples to what Snark posted above. Friendly =/= soft or unprofessional (which was what I previously worried about).

        It is still a struggle for me and I do draw the hard line at emoji’s. I even hate receiving them.

        1. uranus wars

          This is so true! literally using the word “folks” instead of employees has done wonders for me…. “Please ask your employees to refrain from using the yellow envelopes for the orange envelopes items” is so much better recieved as “Hey, some of your folks have been using the yellow envelopes for the more sensitive orange items, can you make sure they are filing things properly?”

          1. Kelsi

            Yes! I tend to start my emails with “Hi folks!” when I’m addressing a group that isn’t otherwise easily categorized (my go-to would be “Hi [team name here] team!” but sometimes it’s not a team group). People always respond to those emails better so I assume it reads well.

    2. I prefer tea

      I was raised as a military kid, and I now work at a church in the South, so…I think I’ve actually come a long way, but my co-workers still laugh when I try to steer the conversation back to work for the third time in one sitting. We joke that for them, the greatest “sin” is rudeness. For me, it’s inefficiency.

      Being nice enough in email has always been a battle for me, but I’m loving these examples. I think they’ll go over well with the little old southern church ladies who serve as volunteers in various ministries I need info from.

      1. RG

        Eh, it’s rude to me to if we have to extend the meeting or can’t go over things because we can’t stay on topic. We should be respectful of others’ time as well.

        1. I prefer tea

          Luckily, that seems to be a shared sentiment in my workplace. It’s more if two people are chatting over the grandkids’ sports, and I have to ask a quick question about a work project. I’ve learned that it’s better to listen & nod for a minute or two, ask my quick question, then ease back out. Takes a few more minutes, but helps with relationships.

      1. NotAnotherManager!

        BLUF (Bottom-Line Up Front) is how I train people to write emails – the lawyer is NOT going to read four paragraphs deep to see what you want. Spit it out already!

        Hi, Bob,

        We’ve hit a snag on the Acme Anvil case and need your guidance to continue. Could you please tell us which of the following ways you’d like us to proceed in this matter: A. Hit the Roadrunner with a countersuit, B. Offer a lowball settlement offer for the feather damage, or C. Provide a barebones response to the complaint. To proceed with options A or C and hit the filing deadlines, we’ll need your approval to start work no later than noon today. To proceed with option B, we’ll need to know what Mr. Coyote’s bottom-line settlement number is by COB so we can prepare an offer and call opposing counsel first thing tomorrow.

        We can be reached in Jane’s office, if you’d like to discuss further.

        Best,
        Team Anvil

        1. Zillah

          I don’t think that softening an email requires four paragraphs, though, and your example does have some social niceties – including some of the specific ones Alison references above. It doesn’t come across as terse to me, just to-the-point… as opposed to this alternative:

          “We need you to tell us how to proceed in the Acme Anvil case. The options are A. Hit the Roadrunner with a countersuit, B. Offer a lowball settlement offer for the feather damage, or C. Provide a barebones response to the complaint. We need your answer by noon today. If B, find out what Mr. Coyote’s bottom-line settlement is.”

  5. It's the little things

    Ironically I have the opposite issue – I am very direct in person but tend to be more nicey nice via email – and I received feedback that a man wouldn’t flower up requests the way that I do and I should try to channel that, so I can appear more professional. The person giving me that feedback was right, I read my emails after and it was almost cringeworthy how apologetic they were so there is a definitely a fine line of balance on this one…

    1. Lil Fidget

      I so feel you on this. I am trying to reframe it myself – being *warm* is good, but apologizing specifically is something that I need to always flag for myself and avoid. That’s not “warmer,” that’s usually just me being insecure which I shouldn’t dump on other people.

      1. Sarcastic Fringehead

        My instinct is to always apologize for needing things, which is something I’ve been pretty successful in addressing, at least by the final draft of the email. (i.e., sending “Ah, this is actually the burrito report, but I need the taco write-up. Can you grab that one instead? Thank you!” instead of “I’m so sorry, I must have miscommunicated which report I need somehow!” when my very clear request is still part of the email chain)

        1. Future Homesteader

          Yup! I’m an EA, but I when I need things from people, I need them. And being wishy-washy or preemptively second guessing myself neither inspires confidence, nor does it really help me in my job. So I check my emails for exclamation points (I try to keep it to 1 or 2 per email), apologies (when I’ve done nothing wrong), and any waffling (“this should be the complete list” when I know dang well it’s the complete list). I think it’s changed the way people see me, for the better, and it’s honestly helped me have more confidence in myself, too.

        2. Rusty Shackelford

          I find that I can’t say “I’m sorry, I must have miscommunicated” without sounding really sarcastic. For me, “Looks like you accidentally sent me the burrito report; I need the taco write-up, thanks!” works better.

          1. Breda

            Yeah, I think this works fine, because it doesn’t imply incompetence on either person’s side, just that you accidentally clicked on the wrong file. Which I have 100% done. Recently.

          2. Jaydee

            I send this email all the time: “The attachment isn’t showing up for me. Could you resend it? Thanks!”

            You know they forgot to attach it. I know they forgot to attach it. They know they forgot to attach it. Nobody cares. Save some face and let the interwebs take the fall for mysteriously eating the attachment. Send the correct attachment and we’re all good.

            1. Rookie Biz Chick

              I’m all good with this, since it’s all factual statements. There’s not a false apology or unnecessary narrative!

            2. topscallop

              I do this too.

              However, I was mad when OldJob switched from Outlook to Gmail, because one of my favorite petty things to do was when people would email me complaining I hadn’t sent something or they never received info, I’d just reply and attach the actual emails in which I had provided the information/ attachments/whatever. With Google I couldn’t figure out how to do that. NewJob uses Outlook, but luckily I haven’t had to do this yet.

    2. LQ

      I’ve been trying to cut appologetic and softening language out of my text. I can be blunt, but I often over soften my opinion (which is weird I know). So I’ve created a list of things to cut out. Politeness is high on my keep, and feeling words have moved to my cut list. My current cut list: feel, think, suspect, believe, maybe, should we, could we, possible, hesitate, perhaps.

      1. Trig

        “just” is my softener to cut. “I’m just wondering about X” “I just need a quick review of Y” “Doing some work on Z, and I just thought that A would be helpful”. Like I’m trying to emphasize how small and inconsequential my ask/work/suggestion is? I dunno, I’m getting good at catching it though!

        1. TheMonkey

          I’m addressing the same issue myself. Sneaky little trivializing word… “just” creeps into so many of my sentences.

          1. Rookie Biz Chick

            How do these requests end up for y’all, then? Interesting the perspective on ‘just’ being inconsequential or trivializing, and I can see that. Funny enough, I add some of these into emails where they wouldn’t naturally be.

            I really want to type ‘you promised the contract last week and I haven’t heard a peep from you or your team!’, becomes ‘hey, just checking in on the contract review. Let me know a good time to chat!’

            1. Marthooh

              This is a lot more than a one-word difference, though!

              “You promised! I haven’t heard a peep!” conveys that you are angry without making an actual request. “Just checking in, let me know…” conveys that there is no urgency.

              But you don’t have to yell, and you don’t have to pretend there’s no problem: “I’m concerned that we haven’t heard from you about the contract that was due last week. Please get it to us by 4 p.m. today. If there’s a problem, I am available to talk any time before noon.”

      2. It's the little things

        Love this list! It doesn’t help that I’m English in the US, so my overly apologetic nature sticks out far more than it would if I lived back home. Not sure if this is allowed to share (sorry Alison if not!) but the mentor who gave me the feedback is a really funny guy and gets my warped humor so gave me a sticky note for my desk that just said #PYPO. It stands for Put Your P*n*s On.

        It’s to remind me as I write to people that I don’t have to communicate according to gender expectations and it really works! I go back over emails and delete basically the words on your cut list. I haven’t had a single person mention that my new style is rude or short, and I am getting better and quicker responses, so it seems to be working (and makes me snigger on a regular basis)!

        1. GS

          I go back and delete a lot until I stop using that language in the first place. My current project is removing questions from my directives, so, “can you please x?” becomes “please x” unless they actually have a choice in the matter. I try to do this particularly with our summer students, who definitely sink things to the bottom of the priority list when I soften.

          1. Anonna Miss

            I second phrasing requests at (polite) directives, rather than questions. Doubly so when it’s to a subordinate, and “No” is not an acceptable answer to “Can you _____?” I hate to say this, but it’s also pretty important to me that I not phrase it as a question when sending to a man.

            I might phrase it as a question when it’s to someone higher up, or to someone who would truly be doing me a favor, but doesn’t have to do it.

            I’m also a fan of sign-offs. “Kindest regards” or “Many thanks” are so much better than nothing.

          2. gmg22

            This is interesting. When I get emails with “Please x” instead of “Could you” and so on, they read as VERY terse because I think it involves an unspoken understanding that the “please” is not actually sincere. It’s “Do x,” and there is no “please” (indicating run-of-the-mill appreciation for your report undertaking the task) about it. (If the response is then “Why do I have to appreciate my report just doing his/her job?” then we move on to a different aspect of this discussion, IMO.) I think if you set deadlines in your directives, you can achieve the same effect without having to be terse to the point that it is off-putting. I used to get directives like these from a colleague, combined with the always enjoyable text-message-style lack of punctuation to make the terseness even more terse. If you ask me about the difference between:

            “Could you add the Enchiladas Inc. report proofread to your list? We need it by COB today, so let me know ASAP if any concerns or deadline issues. Thanks!”
            OR
            “Please proof the Enchiladas Inc. report”

            I know which one I am happy to reply to/jump on and which one maybe gets my hackles up a bit before I reply to/jump on. Result is the same if I’m doing my job, but feeling toward my supervisor over time will be different. YMMV, of course.

    3. Engineer Girl

      Pointing out that a lot of this **is** gendered. Men are expected to be terse, women flowery. And don’t you dare break stereotype!

    4. Workerbee

      This does make me wonder, why is it the proverbial “man’s way” that is the only correct way, you know? Reminds me too much of “Unisex” clothing, which personally never fits me well. It’s not really unisex, it’s cut to a man’s size (generally).

      Ironically, my male boss prefers if we add in “I think” and such to our missives, because if we don’t, he can claim that we’re stating something as a fact when it’s really just our opinion.

      1. Zillah

        YES. That really bothers me; there’s this broad idea that the stereotypical man’s way is the one we should all aspire to, and I’m like… I actually think that the softening language is much better overall. Stereotypically male behaviors and character traits are not automatically superior.

    5. Specialk9

      I’m trying not to let my head explode that men are actually coached to be direct and terse. I’m female and have been coached to soften soften soften. These gender behavior requirements SUCK!! (Even just for cis people like me – how much harder for genderqueer folks.)

    6. Parcae

      I have a coworker who struggles with this, though she has really improved in recent years. As our office’s resident abrupt person, I was called in occasionally to edit her emails for tone. My rule for her was no more than one apology per email. Warmth shouldn’t require apologizing for things that aren’t your fault. (Obviously this doesn’t apply in cases where we screwed up majorly and groveling is appropriate.)

    7. RUKiddingMe

      I get it and good for you for seeing how they were too flowery and apologetic. Women tend to apologize for simply existing and for interrupting the oh so important work of males by doing their own jobs way too often. However the whole “a man wouldn’t…” and needing to make them more like a man to look more professional irks the ever loving shit out of me. Women’s writing styles that are different from males’ writing styles can also be professional. Male is not the default, go to, only one proper way of … anything.

      /rant

    8. Anon for this

      I am so glad that someone brought this up. Men don’t have to deal with this “softening language” BS nearly as much as women, so it really prickles me. On the other hand, it’s emotionally intelligent to speak to people in a manner to which they will respond well, in order to get you the results you want. I’d love to hear some thoughts on this from commenters.

      1. Lord snooty

        Yeah but it cuts both ways.
        Eg. Emojis boil my piss.
        Especially the smiley face after an unwelcome request. It doesn’t soften it for me, it says “I’m too cowardly to own / explain the work “

      2. Zillah

        I generally come down on the side of being bothered by double standards that require disproportionate emotional labor from women, but not dismissing the emotional labor women are often expected to put in as worthless. My experience is that slightly softer language with a more friendly tone generally yields better results, deescalates tense situations, and make people feel more valued and comfortable – all of which are good things. It’s not like men have the monopoly on productive communication – they might not be shamed for being unfriendly, but there are still consequences for it.

  6. Bea

    Argh I’ve been chastised for giving an explanation. Some view it as a waste of time, sigh. I’ve had to retrain myself on that.

    I’m a huge fan of exclamation points and the please/thank you. It’s just enough warmth for any reasonable person.

    1. Lil Fidget

      Yeah, Alison has answered other letters about needing to be concise in communications – and I do think it’s advisable to be both warm AND concise! In these examples, the “nice” version is only a little longer, and the added explanation is only one sentence. Good point though that it would be possible to go overboard :P

      1. Bea

        It differs between offices, industries and positions. Even an extra sentence has gotten me a “I don’t need to know the why. Here’s what you’re looking for.”

    2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone

      If you must give an explanation… try doing it after you’ve gotten the main point across.

      Ex.
      Hi Fergus, can you provide the latest numbers on the widget adoption by the end of the day?

      I’m working on a project to compare the widget usage vs. the whosit usage for Bob that will be presenting at the whatchamacallit symposium next week.

      Thanks Bea
      ___________
      This gives the reader the option for more context if they want it, but doesn’t force them to read through it to get to the point.

      1. Bea

        I always do so after the request, it doesn’t make sense to launch into it prior. I’ve still been told to stop after that and cease extra information. So I’ve retrained myself and my feedback on communication has been positive ever since.

        1. Engineer Girl

          This is what I learned in email class.
          Make the first sentence the actionable thing you need. After that include the “why”.

          1. Rookie Biz Chick

            This and random….’s example above are solid. Thanks for this as I furiously catch up on emails after two days on the road!

        2. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone

          Weird, usually I (as a person who usually doesn’t want an explanation) just skip the rest of it or skim it.

          I can see where some would absolutely not want it, and it’s contextual. I’m more forgiving in email, but I absolutely can’t stand unnecessary verbal explanations.

          “Hey Random, can you send me the Thompson report”
          “Sure, You’ll have it in 5”
          ^ This is a great exchange in my world.

          “Hey Random, I’ve been looking for you all over, did you hear that we started the big whosit project? I’ve been waiting a long time to get involved with that… anyway I was wondering if you have a few minutes can I get the Thompson report? I looked for it in the files but I didn’t find it under the “T” so then I asked Jane about it, because I remembered she used to work on it after Bob left to go to that other company… or was it Steve? I know they both worked on it together, but anyway, back to the Thompson report. I wanted to reference that section that outlined the Whosit adoption rates, because it was the complete study and more complete than the Larson report which was just a subset of the numbers, I already looked at those and they weren’t quite what I wanted. I thought they would be, but it turned out that we didn’t capture the lunar moon cycles in that set of data.”

          ^This makes me want to bludgeon myself with blunt objects or chew off a foot to get away from the conversation!

          And yes, I’ve had emails sent to me which was the equivalent of example #2.

          (for the record, just writing that made my head want to explode!)

          1. Amber T

            ARGH emails are not meant for paragraphs longer than four lines. (Sorry Random, I didn’t even read the whole thing.)

          2. PhyllisB

            Ugh Random, I’m the world’s worst at going on and on. (Anybody who’s read my comments on this site would probably agree!!) I try (if I have time) to go back and reread and condense what I said because sometimes even I realize it’s just too long and rambling.
            I can’t remember if it was Faulkner or Hemingway who said about one of their books, “I had had more time, it would have been shorter.”

          3. Engineer Girl

            Hey Random,

            Could you send me the Thompson report by 5 pm today?

            I need to reference the section that outlined the Whosit adoption rates for my own report.

            Thanks much,

            Engineer Girl.

        3. Rookie Biz Chick

          I’m interested in your industry and team dynamics. Why are you getting so much attention to your email style if you’re doing something like above or an extra sentence {seriously?!}? I imagine if you were too wordy, we would have seen it in this thread!

      2. Breda

        I think that’s actually over-explaining! I’d cut that line down to “I need it for Bob’s presentation at the whatchamacallit symposium. Thanks!”

        1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone

          It is, but at least I don’t have to read it all to understand what the action is :)

    3. AnotherAlison

      I believe there are people who don’t want it, but I love and want the explanation, and I probably give more context than others want (although people have not complained). Here’s an example why: One of my coworkers asked me if I could send a particular table to the legal reviewer. I had a PDF, but legal usually wants native files to redline, so I spent extra time to pull the 12 pages out of the larger PDF file, convert to Word, and send to legal. I told my coworker I was making the conversion, so he had an opportunity to jump in with the explanation and didn’t. 5 minutes after I sent it, I got a response back from legal that “it looked fine to her.” I could have saved time if I knew she only wanted to SEE the file, not mark-up the file. The more context I have, the better response I can give.

      1. Anonym

        +1000

        Some things don’t need any background, but the frequency with which I receive contextless questions or requests that have several very different answers dependent on that absent context may not be survivable.

    4. Turquoisecow

      I’m okay with a single exclamation mark. “Thanks!” is fine. Multiples, are not.

      Replying “Thanks!!!!!!!!!” when I sent a fairly routine report seems like overkill. Also the “Thank you sooooooook much,” because that makes me feel like you think I went above and beyond when I totally did not. So clearly, my predecessor sucked at the basics?

      1. Quiet Pls

        I’m glad someone else wrote this before I did. I hate multiple exclamation marks or question marks, it really irritates me and makes me re read the email for a double meaning (sarcasm/annoyance/why didn’t you do it sooner/Oh, just go away type thing).

        1. Rookie Biz Chick

          Ohmygod – yes, and why?! {Is one of each okay?} I read and judge so much into multiples of the same punctuation and as so many other things in this thread, can’t help but roll my eyes!

          1. Swordspoint

            One of each is okay, because it is serving as an interrobang — most people won’t take the extra time to hunt it down to type one.

            1. Rookie Biz Chick

              I can quit work for the week now that I’ve learned about the existence of interrobangs!

  7. Oxford Comma

    If you have a friend in the business world or a colleague (sounds like this might not be an option, though, as you’re a contractor), it may help to run a few emails by them to see what they think. I do this for a friend who has a tendency to be so cut and dried they might as well be wielding an axe.

  8. BRR

    Exclamation marks is one of my main suggestions as well.
    Can you X? Can you X?
    Thanks, Thanks!
    BRR BRR

    I also start my emails with good morning if I send it first thing in the morning and will use closings like, have a great week, have a great weekend, enjoy the three-day weekend. I heard it once as doing something with the bookends of an email.

      1. Indigo a la mode

        I think they were trying to do a side-by-side comparison, but the form took out extra spaces.

        Can you X?
        Thanks,
        BRR

        vs

        Can you X?
        Thanks!
        BRR

        1. BRR

          Yup, it was a side by side fail. I was trying to avoid a super-long comment and put in a whole bunch of spaces to do a side by side but it took out the spacing :(

      2. Someone Else

        I think that was intended to be a side-by-side comparison, but the formatting got a little weird.

    1. NotAnotherManager!

      Yup. Exclamation points all the way! I picked it up from my former boss, who is unfailingly cheerful, bordering on perky. I naturally use a lot of please-and-thank-yous (Southern, y’all, I can feel my mom grabbing my ear if I don’t), but also suffer from overly direct-and-to-the-pointness – it’s generally a good fit with lawyers, but it’s not with the support staff that they’re also very direct with.

      I feel absurd looking at my emails sometimes, because I’m not an exclamation-y-type person, but whatever gets the job done, you know?

    2. Former Admin Turned Project Manager

      My punctuation after “Thanks” is a good indicator of how much I really appreciate vs. resent what I just put in the email. Exclamation point (and a paragraph break) means I actually appreciate what you are doing/saying in your response. Comma with my signature underneath used if it’s a standard request or a softening word. If I am pissed off that I have to ask you *again* to complete a task for which I’ve given you a clearly stated deadline and at least one reminder leading into the deadline, you get “Thanks.” If I just sign off with no closing, you know you’ve gotten my Irish up.

  9. Anon Accountant

    The occasional “ I appreciate your help with this” can make an email sound warmer. Sometimes I’ll sign an email with “have a great day” and then my name.

    Just depends on who I’m sending it to.

  10. LQ

    For me not starting with people’s names has been good. Sometimes you need to, but if you already have a relationship I think you can just start with a “Hi!” Or perhaps even launch right into the question with context. (I wouldn’t launch into just a question/request without an opener.)

    LQ,
    Can you please send over the Johnson files?
    Thank you,

    vs
    I need the Johnson files for the Thursday report. Would you please send those over?
    Thank you very much!

    I don’t know that this would always work, but it has served my abrupt self pretty well.
    Mostly though I need to strongly second the slammer at the end. I know it’s a big sort of aggressive punctuation, but it has gone a long way for me.
    my order goes:
    Thank you. (Nope.)
    Thank you,
    LQ (totally ok a bit more sedate)
    Thanks! (or) Thank you very much!
    LQ (best)

    1. Indefinite Contract Attorney

      Actually, I’d go the other way. Unless the email trail has already started, going right in with your ask is way too abrupt and rude to me. I wouldn’t necessarily start with just a name, but a greeting and a name. I agree with the closer though.

      Larry,
      Send me the report on tacos by 12:00PM.
      ICA

      versus

      Morning Larry,
      Please send me the report on tacos by 12:00PM; I need time to review before our afternoon meeting.
      Thanks,
      ICA

      1. BRR

        I like a greeting and a name. My dad writes all emails starting with just a name and leaves voicemails the same way. From my perspective, it is not warm at all.

  11. That Would be a Good Band Name

    I had a boss that thought that the smiley face was the best way to soften the often stern-sounding emails that we had to send. Our department was responsible for tracking and keeping others on very strict deadlines so there were a LOT of “This must be done absolutely no later than 12pm Friday or (bad things). Please be sure to complete by that time. Thanks :)”

    I’ve broken myself of the smiley faces now. I usually start with a Hello! and I almost always end with Thanks so much! I might abuse exclamation points, but I have gotten several positive complements on my ability to build rapport through email.

    1. Murphy

      Ugh, I had someone who had Dropped. The. Ball. and was making me do their job for them by delivering bad news that was completely out of my hands to a bunch of about-to-be-pissed-off professors. Without actually coming out and saying what she wanted me to do, she heavily implied it and then ended the email with *smiley face emoji* and I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to strangle a colleague more.

      1. Baby Fishmouth

        One of my coworkers was working for a faculty member who made her send out emails to all the students in his class saying ‘I am very disappointed in your work’ followed by the *frowning emoji*.

        I always thought that was the worst possible use of emojis in email.

    2. Lil Fidget

      It’s true that sometimes I have to send relatively nasty emails in my job, and I don’t think all the “thanks!” sign-offs in the world are going to help me there :P

    3. uranus wars

      I have a co-worker who sends the smiley emoji after her thanks emails…but only when the thanks email is in response to something we were in disagreement about and she gets her way. Its the passive aggressive smiley and it. Drives.Me.Nuts.

    4. No Tribble At All

      My manager is a former peer and new to management. He always sounds super harsh in emails. I suggested that his emails sound harsh, especially when delivering bad news, and now he does the same thing but with emojis. It’s….. not better.

      “I’ve rearranged your schedule. If your vacations are refundable and you can change your travel days, please do. :)”

  12. Not a Blossom

    Even if you don’t like exclamation points, something as simple as starting a message with “Hi Jane,” rather than “Jane,” or no introduction at all can soften things. Also, think about asking more than demanding; think “can you send me the taco file” rather than “send me the taco file.” Of course the person CAN send you the taco file, but that wording is softer.

    1. Lil Fidget

      Yeah, I truly believe there are people who see NO PROBLEM with an email that only reads: “Jane – send me the taco file – Little Fidget.” And I totally get that this email serves the purpose for which it was written, which is … to get the taco file. But for us soft hearted people, “Jane, could you please send me the taco file? thanks! Little Fidget” makes a world of difference. And for people who can’t tell the difference – well, if you want the file as fast as possible, maybe just trust me and go with the second version.

      1. Specialk9

        Exactly. I don’t have to convince you that option 2 will work better, it just will for many people. So don’t argue over the purity of the concept, just be pragmatic and do it.

    2. Bea

      The lack of a greeting grinds my gears every time. It’s a personal tick to feel a disaster towards someone who starts out with “Name, launch into email.” I prefer no intro to just “Name,”. Granted it’s seen as acceptable so my judgments just flow right down River O’ Feels.

      1. Rusty Shackelford

        Ooh, me too, and I don’t know why Hi Rusty, I need to know if the taco file is ready and I need to know if the taco file is ready are both far superior to Rusty – I need to know if the taco file is ready. It just feels different.

      2. LJay

        Yeah, I tend towards being abrupt if anything, but I don’t like starting with just “name,”.

        It feels way too stern, like how my parents would address me or maybe a teacher.

        There’s a huge difference between

        “Lindsay,
        Please send the qwerty file.
        Thanks”

        And

        “Hi Lindsay,
        Could you please send me the qwerty file.
        I really appreciate it.
        Thanks!
        Coworker”

    3. ThatGirl

      I agree – and also adding “Good morning!” or “Hope all is well” or another small social nicety can warm things up too. As well as “Appreciate it,” or “Thanks for your help,” or … whatever. It may seem extraneous but it is social lubrication.

    4. writerson

      My former boss was terrible about this. Her emails were usually: “M- I need the taco paper. – A”

      Never any greeting, never any acknowledgement, never any thanks. Sometimes it was for projects I hadn’t touched in weeks. Baffling and frustrating.

      Thank goodness she’s now my former boss!

      1. gmg22

        This style is even more fun when they have limited or incorrect information about what they’re looking for. We get a lot of one-liners sent via mobile from airport lounges that go like this: “I need that taco paper we did last year.” “The one about carnitas?” “No, the taco paper.” “The al pastor project?” “No, the TACO PAPER.” Further back-and-forth then elicits the information that the seeker is not looking for “that taco paper we did last year,” he/she is looking for the tamales paper we did three years ago.

  13. Murphy

    I usually do exclamation points…and then a quick re-read to make sure I didn’t do too many exclamation points.

    1. Memily

      I do *exactly* the same. I always feel like periods are too terse! And then I look at my paragraph and every sentence ends in an exclamation!!

      1. Arielle

        Yes! I do the same. Unrelated, I also go through and take out all the times I’ve used the word “just”.

        1. Save your forks

          I try to do one exclamation mark, and one just, but it is just SO HARD sometimes! Unless I’m responding to a fellow exclamation-marker, and then I let my exclamation marks fly.

    2. BRR

      I think I try and stick with one or two depending on the length of the email. Anything more makes me feel like it loses its meaning. Maybe I need to develop a percentage of sentences that can end with one?

      1. Breda

        Hah, my rule is “No more often than every other sentence.” I work in a very relationship-driven industry and genuinely like most of the people I’m corresponding with, so in general my emails skew very! heavy! on! the cheer!

      2. Anonym

        My rule is one per email, unless I already have a friendly relationship with the person. My instinct is INFINITE EXCITES!!!

        1. Amber T

          It’s really eye opening how different my office/industry seems to be! Exclamation points are rarely, if ever, used in the body of emails. Occasionally emails will end with “Thanks!” but even that’s pretty unusual unless it’s internal or a one-off acknowledgement. The only time I’ve professionally used exclamation points in the bodies of emails is with vendors that I have a friendlier relationship with (worked with them longer, worked on difficult projects with and saw the other end, etc) where a group email has broken off and it’s just the two of us.

  14. thunderbird

    Let me exclaim that I share your affinity for efficient point-making!! I too have received similar feedback and I find it obnoxious, though it is true that a simple greeting and sign off can make a difference, I have also dealt with people who need a whole lot of fluff.

    I caused an outrage when I wrote a clear email and numbered the action items for clarity and simplicity, and was vilified for it. This was an outlier situation, but you never know who you are dealing with and this is to say there is a full spectrum on both ends.

    Let there be brevity.

    1. Specialk9

      I get it too, but I also get my reminds hurt when people act like I’m a robot or a minion. Dude – can you acknowledge I’m human? (Which is how abrupt orders barked at me through email feel.)

  15. Elaine

    I completely sympathize with the OP. I, too, just want to get the task done as efficiently as possible. It took me a little while to realize I was creating problems with people who look to build relationships. One thing that really helped me was a book called Business Writing with Heart. (I am not the author nor do I know her.) It has a lot of good information on business writing that is both warm and professional.

    I’m sorry if the site’s policies don’t permit reference to other products. Please delete my post if that is the case.

  16. Sarah

    Word of warning though…make sure when tone policing yourself that you don’t over-soften. This is something women have been trained to do, & it is not always to our benefit. It took (and still does at times) a female colleague pointing out to me that I was overly apologetic about every point I made, every instruction I needed to give out. It made people take me less seriously, as it indicated a lack of confidence in what I was saying/doing. Coming across as brusque/rude is not good, and its something to watch. Just…watch out for swinging too far the in opposite direction as well.

  17. LadyByTheLake

    I could have been the letter writer here. I have been working on this a LOT over the past year. One thing that has really helped is that instead of just stating the answer, I rework the question into the answer.
    Previous:
    Q — Can we serve chocolate?
    A — No.
    Now:
    Q — Can we serve chocolate?
    A — Serving chocolate is a problem because of Reasons.
    Also, if the first word of my email is “yes” or worse, “no” I rewrite the email to rework that.

    1. LadyByTheLake

      I also use “Unfortunately” a lot too to soften a “no.” “Unfortunately, serving chocolate is a problem because of Reasons.”
      Another one I use both in email and on phone calls (often when someone is saying something particularly ridiculous or idiotic) is that I ask them to explain it to me. “Help me understand why that is happening ” gets a better reaction than “why are you doing that?”

      1. The Original K.

        I was just thinking that I’d respond with either “unfortunately” or “I’m afraid not.” Can we serve chocolate?” “I’m afraid not, because [reasons].”

      2. Happy Lurker

        I love “help me understand why this is happening”. I got it here, I don’t remember from who, but it has diffused a few situations where I can see an issue and need a resolution from a less than helpful person.

        I also get reprimanded that my emails are not the appropriate tone and are too terse.

        I try to respond they way I am addressed. Terse email gets a terse response, flowery email gets a flowery response. I have many people that speak English as a second (or third) language and specifically try to keep the extra words at a minimum so there is less wordiness for them to deal with.

        I think it is a bit ironic that both my sister and I are “spoken to” on a semi-regular basis about email tone. We are both wishy washy in real life but to the point in email.

    2. EB

      I have problem where I found that because I am female, if I don’t say “no” people either view the lack of no as (a) maybe, or (b) as an opportunity for negotiation. So I’ve had to move to:

      Q. Can we serve chocolate?
      A. No. Serving chocolate is a problem because of Reason.

      OTOH, I am constantly infuriated that a male colleagues constantly communicate in the first style you listed and are viewed as decisive and providing clear instructions.
      Q: chocolate?
      male answer: No.

      While I get told I am brusk and terse and need to have a better tone for the same communication style solely because I am female.

      My position is that if you wouldn’t tell a man who sent the email to improve their communication style, than by god, you better not tell women to have a better communication style either.

      1. LadyByTheLake

        I’m right there with you EB — it makes me livid that I am not allowed to communicate like a male would be, but at this point I am so tired of the sexist double standard that it is just easier to change my style slightly. I still refuse to do anything I perceive as cringe-y “Sorry, no” isn’t going to come from me. But if I can smooth the bluntness even slightly, it has catapulted my career. Also, everyone knows me well enough to know that if they push back on my “nice” version of “no” they will get the full wrath of the LadyByTheLake coming down and opening up a can of whupass.

      2. Tau

        Although honestly, I wonder if the problem there isn’t that we should be telling men to improve their communication style more than we do. Not every sexist double-standard involves the male version being the “correct” mode to operate under, and I’d consider just “No.” as an answer to that question really inappropriate from any gender.

    3. Rusty Shackelford

      A — Serving chocolate is a problem because of Reasons.

      But don’t you get people who decide that since you didn’t use the word “no,” this is simply an invitation for them to fix/explain away those Reasons? When I have to write an email like this, I always say “no, that won’t work because Reasons” or “we can’t because Reasons” but I make sure to get that “no” in there, first thing.

      1. LadyByTheLake

        See above — folks know full well that I am saying “no.” If there is any question that they might not get that, I work it in there, so it is clear, but it never the first word because I’m a woman and if I say “no” as my first word that is perceived as mean. So — “Unfortunately, we cannot serve chocolate because of Reasons” or “Serving chocolate is a problem because of Reasons, so no.”

    4. LJay

      For the second one, I prefer still adding the “No” or other language in there just in case.

      “Serving chocolate is a problem because of reasons” can be taken as ambiguous. If the recipient decides that it’s not a direct no, but that the can serve the chocolate because they feel like the reasons to serve the chocolate outweigh the reasons why serving the chocolate is a problem, we could both find ourselves in trouble.

      I prefer something like,
      “Serving chocolate is a problem because of reasons, so unfortunately it is not an option for that banquet.”

  18. Engineer Girl

    I can so relate to this. I’ve struggled with it my entire life. I even took classes on how to write emails (not kidding!) In fact, I’ve been chastised on this forum for being “mean” or “blunt”. So there you go.
    I like what is written above about task oriented Vs relationship oriented. You need both types to make the world go round. But a relationship person will get offended by a blunt email, so the style needs to change.
    It always helps to include the reasons for your request in your email. The other person may have additional information related to those reasons. Then they can negotiate with you for the best solution. So there’s actually a huge benefit to including the extra language.

    1. Specialk9

      Good for you for working so hard at that tendency. You’re right about it being worth doing because of the two kinds of people.

    2. AnotherAlison

      Do you get asked to flower up the facts? I try to be nice in more personal business-related conversations, like when requesting work be done by someone. But, I get this type of feedback on being blunt even in report writing. If the client has an idea, we study it, and it won’t work, apparently, you can’t say, “That won’t work and here’s why.” Instead it’s, “We think your approach may be challenging to implement, but we do have some alternatives we can recommend.” I just go with it and understand that the people giving this feedback are “client relationship” experts and I’m not.

      1. Engineer Girl

        Yes. I was actually marked down for saying “this will never work”. The reality was that I was slack jawed at how bad the product was. I had never seen anything so awful in my life! I thought I was being **very** polite.
        Other instances were being bossy (when I was the boss) or telling people “no” (when I was the SME responsible for signing off on the product.) Some men react very badly when a woman tells them no (how DARE you!!!). One guy was honest enough to admit that he felt like he was being chastised by his mother, so was having an emotional reaction. I appreciated the honesty, but dude, I’m your lead, not your Mom. Separate the two!

        1. Snark

          So….I can understand being taken aback that someone reacted unprofessionally, and I definitely agree that feeling like you’re being chastised by your mom is a pretty strong emotional reaction to professional feedback. Be big boys about it, please.

          But.

          “This will never work” is not polite, let alone very polite, let alone **very** polite. That was at best curt and unsparing, verging on harsh. I’d have responded to it professionally and it wouldn’t have bothered me much, but it would have been like “eesh, whoa” when I read it.

          1. Engineer Girl

            Yet they deserved it. The procedure was a cesspool of incompetence. It took me close to 6 months to rearchitect the thing. It had to be rebuilt from scratch – absolutely nothing was salvageable. Nothing!! Yet they wanted me to sign off on it as the complete and final product.

            I believe this was a full blown case of Dunning Kruger. They had absolutely no idea how bad it was because no one on that team was able to do the job.

            1. Snark

              If you say deserved it, you’re conceding it was curt and harsh by intent and in delivery, are you not? You knew it wasn’t polite, so don’t tell me it was.

              And sure, it was probably crap. But “I have some fundamental concerns about the procedure and do not plan to sign off on it as written” lands differently than “This will never work,” even if it says the same damn thing.

              1. Engineer Girl

                They came to the meeting expecting me to sign off on it. In their eyes it was merely an administrative meeting. In their eyes, they had done a most excellent job.
                They needed “this will never work” to break them of their strong delusions. Sometimes you have to be blunt. That is not the same as rude.
                If I had stated I had some fundamental concerns they would have interpreted it only slight problems and salvageable. It was not, in any way shape or form.

                1. Vin Packer

                  I wonder if part of what you’re saying, too, is that when you’re a task-oriented woman, it’s sometimes hard to know when you’re getting legitimate relationship-oriented feedback and when you’re getting sexist bullshit, because they can sound really similar, especially if the people you’re dealing with aren’t fully competent and you’re asked to be responsible for what they do. You know that you can be overly blunt and need to work on it, but you’re not sure *how much* because you can’t 100% trust that the people giving you this feedback aren’t just looking for your total negation.

                  I wonder if the key is finding someone whose judgment you DO trust, and leaning heavily on them to help you work on it. (I mean “you” in general, not you specifically…..okay I mean me.)

                2. Engineer Girl

                  In this case it was cluelessness. That manager argued with several SMEs that they didn’t know how things worked. In my case, he tried to mansplain to me how the software worked… when I had been the lead designer on the project and had also written previous procedures.
                  But yes, it’s hard to discern. And he tried to negate my comments.

                3. Project Manager

                  I am also an engineer and I have no problem with your approach. I’ve had to verbally smack coworkers upside the head as well.

                  You may enjoy the YouTube video “The Expert”. I have been several different characters in that video at different stages in my career :-)

                4. Snark

                  Great. Just don’t keep bullshitting me about what your intent was, because it wasn’t “very polite.”

          2. AnotherAlison

            To me, saying, “This will never work” parallels saying, “Your shirt doesn’t fit” to an individual. I would say both of those, and I see both as a statement of fact, same as if I had said, “Your shirt is green.” This is the problem. Other people don’t see it as a fact, but rather as a judgment or opinion, and they take it personally. It’s hard to not be a relationship-oriented type of person in the world. (Although I am 100x better at it then when I was 12. I had no friends as a kid. . .wonder why.)

            1. Engineer Girl

              Exactly this. And as the person that had the only authority to sign off on the procedure, I had full right to reject it.
              I might have softened it if they had bothered to work with me earlier. Yet they kept me out of the loop until the end.

            2. Snark

              Look, you’re not communicating with yourself. What it means to you is only so important. What it means to the person you’re ostensibly communicating with is vastly more so, and you don’t get a vote on that. Yes, they take that personally. You know they do. You can factor that in. You’re choosing not to.

              “Task-oriented” and “relationship-oriented” is today’s extrovert vs. introvert. I’m task-based too. Just like introversion doesn’t mean you’re a quiet, special flower in a world full of noisy boors, being task-oriented doesn’t mean you get to be overly blunt without some social ramifications to that. That’s just the terrain you’re walking on, same as me.

          3. Engineer Girl

            And had they bothered to include the key stakeholders earlier in the process this would not have happened and we would not have blown budget.

  19. animaniactoo

    Sometimes you can also warm it up by acknowledging the situation as an “I see you and I know you’re not a robot” kind of thing.

    “Hey, I know this is really last minute but I just received a request for X. Can you get me Y by 12:30 or 1?”

    “Hi, can you please send the X report? If you can get it to me before EOD that’d be really appreciated.”

    “Sorry, I know you’re flooded today but I’m looking for X. Can you help?” (or alternately, “…Any help would be really appreciated.”)

    1. Ama

      Yes — I deal with a lot of Very Busy People who volunteer for us and even though they write some of the bluntest emails I’ve ever seen, an email from me or my coworkers without a ton of niceties will bring on accusations of being too demanding or taking their help for granted. And one of the best ways I’ve found to handle this is to be aware of some of the bigger events affecting our sector and leading off with things like “I know everyone’s busy prepping for [major conference], but we could use your quick input on this,” or saying “If you can get back to us by X date, we can get this wrapped up before the [government deadline].” Sometimes if I know they have been working with a colleague on another project I’ll acknowledge that, too, so they don’t feel like we’re just blindly sending requests from every angle.

      It is really amazing how much acknowledging that someone has their own set of priorities outside of your project makes them more receptive to helping you.

  20. Workerbee

    I can be an exclamation-pointer, too! <–as I just wrote this without even thinking of how I ended it, I'll leave it as a sad example of my affinity.

    I've also had to train myself out of using smilies instead of actual words. I don't even remember when the smiley became personally pervasive in my correspondence, but damned if it hasn't been hard to dig it out. Before the smiley era, I somehow existed…

    I am totally taking the LW's word that she wants to dig into her tone and style. For me, I do still wonder how much is being gender-directed, or with only One True Way to do business correspondence. It bugs even as I don't know what to do about it.

    1. AnotherAlison

      I haven’t gone full smiley, but I probably have used more exclamation points in the last few years than I did in the first 15 years of my career. Some of it is probably that email is just more informal now, but I also have to do a lot of requesting and following up with people who didn’t do their work (who I don’t directly manage). Bluntness seemed okay from the bottom up, but I need to soften a lot of things I have to tell people now. High school composition teachers from the 90s would probably be shocked at how we communicate now.

  21. Emilia Bedelia

    “Hope you’re doing well” or “Hope you had a nice weekend/holiday” as an opening and/or “Thanks for your help!” or “Thanks!” as a closer are some of my favorite “softeners”. For a one or two sentence email, I often find that this is sufficient.

    To soften the body of an email, especially if I’m emailing someone an explanation of why they are very wrong and I am very right, I often try to clearly state my assumptions/thoughts and add in phrasing like “My understanding/interpretation is…” or “Let me know if I’m misunderstanding”. I also sometimes thank people for the effort that they did put in even if it was wrong. Finally, I think “Let me know if you have any questions” can also help you seem more approachable/like you’re trying to be helpful.

    So, for a first draft:
    “Hello,
    The reports you sent me were formatted incorrectly. Do not use X format – Use Y format instead, as we talked about for 3 hours in that meeting on Friday afternoon. Please reformat and send back.”
    Thanks,
    Emilia”

    Softened up:
    “Hi Garfield, hope you had a nice weekend.
    Thanks for sending the lasagna reports – however, my understanding based on our meeting last week was that we would be using Y format instead of X. Could you put them into that format instead?

    Let me know if you have any questions about how to use the new form.

    Thanks!
    Emilia”

    (That’s definitely more softening than I’d generally use for an email that short, but
    you get the idea)

    1. miss_chevious

      This is a perfect example of how one person’s softening is another person’s time wasting — I find phrases like “I hope you had a nice weekend/holiday” to be pointless pandering. I’m not actually going to respond to them, and you don’t actually care, so why not just tell me what you want so I can respond? Not to mention it takes up valuable space in the previewing function of our email client.

      This thread is the embodiment of YMMV, I swear.

  22. caledonia

    Sometimes I write the email with just the bare bones and then I go in and add context and warmth before sending.

    1. Mommy MD

      It’s kind of sad that people can take such offense to an information-only email that contains nothing offensive. Society has become ultra sensitive and in some ways it’s not a good thing. Unless something warrants it, it’s best not to perceive ill intent from the sender.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        My goodness, I think people have been highly attuned to communication styles for centuries – maybe even more so in the past when manners were more regimented. Now we happen to have email, but it’s not like people didn’t read into wording and tone before our current era. It’s a core part of communication.

        1. Mommy MD

          I’m so sorry to strike a chord. Not my intent. My intent was to say I think we should give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt if we receive an informational email which may seem stark or blunt. Unless the content is rude or there’s already a known problem with the sender I think it’s better not to perceive rude or ill intent. I think meaning can be read into an email that isn’t there. I think it’s better to think it was sent with positive intent instead of being offended it wasn’t perceived as warm. And I do think people can misinterpret or feel offended when no offense was meant.

      2. Snark

        Society has become, in fact, vastly less sensitive to tone and less demanding of pleasantries and fluff than it once was – a friendly email in 2018 would have been an unforgivably casual and terse letter even in 1950, let alone 1850. Etiquette used to be incredibly regimented and formal, and even a simple correspondence with a friend was more formal than most business correspondence today.

      3. beth

        On the contrary, I think the ‘warming it up’ stuff provides a lot of information! It’s how we convey the more interpersonal part of conversations–whether we’re annoyed at a request or consider it no big deal, whether we’re talking to a good friend or a casual acquaintance, where the members of the conversation stand in a social hierarchy (we use different tone when talking to our boss than our subordinates), all that stuff.

        Because that kind of information underlies all of our relationships, it throws people off when it’s completely wiped from an interaction. It makes people wonder if something changed without them realizing it. And it’s not unique to writing–we generally include that context in face-to-face communication without even thinking about it, via things like tone and body language. It’s far from new.

        1. Mommy MD

          I think it’s great to warm it up and always do. But I don’t take offense when I get a terse or blunt email because I assume the sender just wanted to convey information and I think it’s best not to take it personally or assume something negative about the sender.

      4. Tau

        The thing is that this is just not how human communication works, or has ever worked. Humans use language to build relationships and acknowledge each other as humans (the thing that made small talk made sense to me was when a linguistics professor described it as the replacement for grooming as a bonding ritual). It’s impossible to strip that level from it, and if you try you generally end up communicating something like “I do not value you, I may not consider you a member of my tribe” which obviously really trips people up.

        I admit it genuinely confuses me how many people seem to have trouble with this idea in a work context but are (I am guessing) perfectly capable of picking up the nuances outside of it. I’m autistic and I basically taught myself a lot of this stuff in my teens because I had marked social difficulties. It’s absolutely not surprising to me that such a pervasive human behaviour is also present in the workplace.

      5. McWhadden

        You have to have no knowledge of history to take this stance. Writing used to require ridiculous formalities that would cause great offense if they were not adhered to. People could even duel over that.

  23. Debbie Downer

    I agree with what Alison suggests and have tried to write my emails in what I thought would be a friendly manner. And I was told by my supervisor to “knock it off,” to not include unnecessary information and to be “more to the point.”

    It seem like you just can’t win with some people. :-(

    1. AliceBG

      You just have to learn your audience, and a good way to start is by mirroring the kinds of emails you get from each coworker.

  24. Nita

    I re-read before hitting send, and try to add a small aside if it’s relevant. Like, “here’s the report you requested” becomes “here’s the report you requested. I hope it’s clear, let me know if I need to revise!” or I’ll thank the person for their quick response, or something. Although I guess you have to be careful not to overdo the asides, as today’s Lizzie-and-the-kids thread shows…

  25. Kramerica Industries

    I’ve gotten spoken to also that my emails are too blunt and cold. Specifically, my manager was concerned that I wasn’t welcoming feedback/collaboration while pushing back on deadlines/tasks. So now all my emails have “Let me know what you think” or “Happy to chat about this further” at the end.

    1. AliceBG

      And that’s all it takes! It doesn’t take tons of time or mental effort to type out a phrase here or there which goes a long way in keeping the “teamwork wheel” of a functional office environment well-lubricated.

      1. Lil Fidget

        There was definitely a woman at my old office who had added “thanks” to her email signature. It still worked! It turns out there’s really almost no email that couldn’t be appropriately ended with “thanks.”

  26. RES ADMIN

    Ironically, I just had a conversation with a coworker, Jane, who is seething–as in needed to get out and take a walk angry–about a series of email that she had just received. It wasn’t that what the emails were asking/discussing were wrong, per se. It was how it was put. (And, yes, the wording was really that bad).

    So, “I’ve been reviewing these files and these things are all wrong and you need to fix this now. This should never have been like this. Oh, and this other thing is wrong too and you need to update it right now! and while I am at it, you need to change procedures x,y,z and start collecting a,b,c info.” (Last I heard, we were up to 6 very lengthy emails–complete with screen shots. I should also note that there is no obvious reason for this person, Mary, from another department to be in our files and Mary has NO authority over Jane or anyone in our chain of command–quite the reverse).

    Better email would have been “Hi Jane! I was looking at these files as part of a separate review and noticed a few things that could be a problem down the road. Is this something you are aware of or would want to discuss? Should I loop Bob in? Thanks so much!”

    Note, the friendly version of the email is much shorter that the 6+ multi-page emails sent and comes across as helpful and positive rather than accusatory and demanding.

    1. CM

      This is a great point — if it’s something that involves a series of criticisms or requests, or anything that might annoy or upset someone, consider whether email is even the right way to deliver it. An email saying, “Hey, I noticed some issues, can we talk about them?” is way better.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management

        Which leads to a point that many forget: not everything should be communicated via email.

  27. Gloucesterina

    I learned to do this in an assistant role where I was tasked with sending out a lot of template-based emails with niceties baked in into the script, as it were.

    I’d also add that some niceties can be used to reinforce the point of a professional interaction–e.g. “Thanks for thing X. Can you also do thing Y?”

    Some folks above noted the use of “just” as a softener; I find myself often using “Just a heads-up that X” (for FYIs) or “Just a note that Y” (for requests/minor corrections).

    I’m also a fan of the warm opening sentence + bullet points gambit!

  28. Close Bracket

    > 1. A warm opening — like “Hey!” or “Hi there!” or so forth.

    Just know that what is warm to one person might be hostile to another, and learn to let misunderstandings go. I opened an email with “Hey,” once, and got a hostile response telling me I was unprofessional. I learned to treat that person with kid gloves, but it was really discombobulating when it happened. If you think you are warm or friendly and it goes poorly, let it go. Misunderstandings happen.

  29. Quickbeam

    I have a very clipped style and adopting some folksy “Thanks so much”and “Hi there!” add-ons has really helped me get a better response from my teams. It isn’t really me but it seems to cost so little to cheer up my tone.

  30. Falling Diphthong

    I work in publishing, and emoticons are almost unheard of–I suspect it would land as unprofessional to not convey your point with words.

    The softening language, though–a greeting, a sign off, a ‘please’–function as social lubricant. It doesn’t need to be logical. Just as exchanging “How are you?” “Fine” is a brief ritual that you do to acknowledge your fellow humans’ humanity, so are openings and closings.

    Looked back at the last few emails from my boss (male):

    “Hi Falling. This is a question on the flying teapots documentation, which I know isn’t your section. But I wanted to get your opinion…”

    “Hi Falling. Can you provide this?” Which was something that should have been in the doc I sent off, but I missed that line. I’m usually very thorough, which they know, and I know they know. My reply consisted only of the needed content (in the interests of speed) and both boss and the person who needed it sent “Thanks, Falling. -Person” replies, fulfilling the combined functions of social smoothing and a read receipt. “The info was received, and is complete, so I don’t need anything more at this time.” I could also have sent something like “Cersei and Ajax–Here is the correct info: ‘This one has a little star. Say, what a lot of fish there are.’ Thanks, Falling.” I would have done that if I weren’t rushing to get this turned around to them before I had to leave, and it’s closer to my default quick email.

    Note that in my first example I’m being asked for an extra favor, and in the second I’m being asked to send on something I should have included the first time. But the language is similar.

    1. We’re not all the NYRB

      I also work in publishing, and definitely use emoticons if the relationship is at that level! Usually with authors that already use that style with me, or with editors I’m quite friendly with, etc. Kids’ lit in particular uses very over the top friendly language, exclamation marks, and emoticons as a matter of course.

  31. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone

    So, yes, sometimes a “Hi” or a “Thanks!” can go a long way in an email. It’s a know your audience and intent thing.

    Try to think of writing an email as a bit like a conversation. Most people wouldn’t stick their head around the corner “Bob send me the thompson report” and then disappear. Most people who are naturally blunt would do something like “Hey Bob can you send me that thompson report? Thanks” and then disappear.

    OP, you mention that in person you are direct and use other things to not sound grumpy. You need to find the equivalent of humor and expressions for your email.

    I’m not a believer that I have to attempt to manage other peoples feelings and reactions to email, with that being said, I also believe that the same social niceties need to be in email or written communications as well as verbal ones.

  32. Me Too

    Really just here to let OP know they are not alone. I can have the same problem at times and hate resorting to emojis as I feel they don’t belong in a professional email. However, I do try to add please and thank you.

  33. RUKiddingMe

    “…relationships matter”

    This. I tend to have low tolerance for incompetence or for people who will do work without understanding how or what they are actually supposed to do. If you don’t understand, ask me I will tell you/help you. If you can’t do the work, tell me, I am not an ogre and I will bend over backwards so far I am facing front again to try to help you succeed/do work you aren’t incompetent at, or if need be try to help you move on elsewhere.

    All of that said, if I didn’t take the time to soften my approach, particularly when I’m annoyed at the fifth time Jane has screwed up XYZ because she is never, ever, Ever going to “get” it, instead of being “coolest boss I ever had” I would be called all the names that many people use for assertive women that I myself refuse to use.

  34. Armchair Analyst

    I did once severely critique an underling’s email style because instead of opening with, “Dear Joaqueen, Nice presentation! I’d recommend the following changes…. ” she just started off with “Joaqueen, Be sure to make the following changes in the presentation….” And I knew Joaqueen and how hard she’d worked on the presentation and that it was an ongoing work-in-progress for the organization and for Joaqueen. And the email writer’s style was too harsh, although the writer had warned me earlier that she was very blunt and direct. Which usually is fine, but it’s a good idea to sandwich criticism so that it tastes better. A spoonful of sugar substitution, and all that…

  35. Leave the 'hey' to horses

    Hard disagree on starting any professional/work email with “Hey.” It’s far too casual and the salutation equivalent of “guys.”

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s perfectly appropriate and widely used in loads of professional offices. I’m sure there are places where it would be out of sync with the culture, but those offices are the exception, not the rule.

      1. Tableau Wizard

        I honestly can’t tell you how much I appreciate hearing that.
        I got an hour-long lecture from my first boss out of school for using “Hey” instead of “Hi” at the beginning of an email because it was too informal and “as a millennial, you probably think it’s just fine, but the real adults don’t” – not exact words, but definitely the sentiment.

        I think she might not have been completely wrong for the culture of that org, but I am always thrilled to see highly professional, well regarded leaders start emails with Hey.

    2. beth

      I mean, if no one at your office uses it, read the room and stick with something more formal. But I don’t think it’s accurate to say this is too casual for the workplace in general; it’s common and entirely fine at plenty of places.

    3. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone

      I use it a lot.

      Hey… we need to blah
      Heya.. can I talk to you for a minute.

      Of course I also use “Yep” as a response too, so I may not be the picture of business correspondence.

      But all of those are perfectly acceptable to use with internal coworkers.

    4. McWhadden

      I work for a very formal legal department and I receive emails from other starting with “hey” all of the time. It is widely accepted.

    5. tusky

      This seems like a know-your-office-culture kind of thing. I don’t often use “hey” in emails, but that’s mostly because I worry it might read as yelling or abrupt, rather than as a casual form of “hello.”

    6. Someone Else

      “Hey” alone would be considered a bit too casual in my workplace, but not jarringly so. But “Hey Firstname,” happens dozens of times a day every day. Mostly internally, sometimes from clients to us. Not from us to clients. It’s a know your audience thing.

    7. Ralph Wiggum

      I’m always amused by people who have distinct greetings. I had one colleague who began every conversation with “Oh, hey,” as if he only just noticed me and there was something he’d been meaning to ask. It was always a bit of dissonance when I saw it written.

    8. nym

      We use it a lot, and like everything it is context-dependent. “hey, can I pop over to your office for two minutes with a question about X?” would be perfectly acceptable, and also “Hi person, are you in your office? Could I come interrupt you for two min re: thing?” and “Dear person, I am trying to track down the answer on X – do you know, or can you take two min to point me in the right direction? Thanks, signature block”

      I used all three with my boss today.

  36. Jesmlet

    The fact that they’re telling you about it might be because you’re a female but you’re perceived as terse and cold because that’s how your emails are. A warm opener and closer makes a heck of a difference and the amount of time spent on niceties saves you the extra time you’d spend dealing with people who dislike you or think you dislike them.

    1. AliceBG

      That’s so true — it’s a little bit of extra typing that goes a long way in keeping things genial, and it saves you from having to spend a lot more effort (and annoyance) in the long run.

  37. Curlykat

    Great conversation! This is something that I’ve had to work on as well, as a task-oriented person. I have found that giving a reason (after the ask) does help. Lots of people are Questioners, so knowing why something is needed or done helps them to comply. I do, however, struggle with using “can you” when you know that they absolutely can, and you expect them to.

    Adrian, can you send me the final spring budget report? I need to work on future projections.
    vs.
    Adrian, please send me the final spring budget report. I need to start working on future projections. Thank you!

    1. Lil Fidget

      I have experimented with “WOULD you send me the taco file,” and in some moods that resolves me anxiety around using “could” when they clearly could.

    2. tusky

      I wrestle with this kind of phrasing quite often. I go back and forth all the time on which of these (“please send me…” vs. “can you send me”) sounds more demanding/harsh. It seems like adding “please” should inherently soften the request, but oddly it doesn’t always feel that way (to me).

  38. Indisch blau

    I sometimes use sign-offs that have to do with the weather:
    Sunny Greetings
    Greetings from spring-like (Name of my town)
    Sunny greetings from rainy (Name of my town)
    (I’m in Germany and translating my sign-offs into English, which is why they may sound stilted.)

    I also sometimes include wishes for the recipient. I got an email today saying that a manuscript would be delayed, so I ended my reply with “all the best for the home stretch”.
    Other than that I can be fairly blunt as well.

    1. Pauli

      My old boss was German and she did this all the time! She said it’s a fairly common German thing. I find it charming, and I’ve started doing it myself.

    2. LGC

      I just want to say – I actually wish I could use those greetings, and I’d be delighted if I got messages like that!

    3. Armchair Analyst

      “stilted” is such a good word!
      I wish I knew that word, or similarly but not quite “awkward” in the other languages I speak, so that I could apologize and explain myself better.
      “Stilted” is very precise. I’m impressed!

  39. CDM

    Since most of my email contacts are in the same region, brief comments on weather also work as softeners.

    Stay cool! stay dry, stay warm, drive safely, watch out for ice! enjoy the lovely weather, avoid the flooded roadways, how much hail did you get? Two seconds to add something that doesn’t require a response but conveys “I acknowledge you, fellow human, and our shared (non-work) experience”

  40. jm

    I’m from the Gulf South so warmth comes pretty naturally. I usually start my emails with “Hey Bob” or “Good afternoon Bob!”
    Then add something like, “I hope your day is going well,” “I hope you had a great weekend,” “It was great to see you/talk last week,” or “Happy Friday!”
    And then I get down to business, with plenty of pleases, but shoot for brevity whenever possible.
    I always close with, “I appreciate your help/input/etc.” and “Thanks so much!”

  41. Sofia

    I love signing off with the phrase “”Warmly, _____”
    Loved it when I saw it on someone else’s sign off, and have heard others say they might use it as well.

    1. De-Archivist

      My boss’s boss does this. It surprised me the first time too, but I got a sense that I was valued even for small things upon receiving it.

      1. No Tribble At All

        I’m the opposite! You get enough emails signed “warm regards” that it ceases to have all meaning, especially when you get it from a distro. Does this person really have warm regards for all 35 of us? I’ve talked to them once.

        I’ve worked with some former military guys, and they all sign emails “v/r” (short for “very respectfully”). Using an acronym to be so deferential cracks me up.

        1. Former Admin Turned Project Manager

          I get a ton of regular email approvals from our QA department, all signed with w/r or v/r. It cracks me up that the warm regards or very respectful feelings are part of an email response template.

    2. Michaela Westen

      When I worked for an international company receiving emails signed “Warm regards” or “Best regards” always made me feel good.
      “Best regards” seems more formal, for people you don’t really know and “Warm regards” might seem inappropriate.
      Signing just “Regards” is even more formal.
      Any of these three always gives me the impression the writer cares about what they’re doing and when appropriate, about me and my colleagues.

      1. Michaela Westen

        Another good one is “Cordially”. I think all of these indicate good wishes and respects from the sender, and that’s why they make people feel good. :)

  42. Hiring Mgr

    Nothing wrong with an emoji/smiley face every now and then either if you want… CEOs, CFOs, COOs, VPs, etc all use them–nothing to shy away from (obviously know your audience, etc..)

    1. AnotherAlison

      I think that saying the C-suite executives do it, so I can, too, is a stretch. I think that when it’s coming from an established leader, it can make that person look more relatable, but if you’re a lower level person, particularly in a position that is not highly respected in your organization, it could read as more immature or unprofessional. (The OP sounds like she is established enough to use them if she wanted, though.)

  43. De-Archivist

    I’m in a very positive communication-oriented department in higher ed, but I’m also direct (but polite) in my communication style. It has been very weird getting used to each of my coworkers making a point to greet each other in the morning and stop by their offices to say goodbye in the afternoon. Their emails also use very positive language throughout. I was really worried about adjusting to this coming from somewhere that people generally did not do this.

    While this can seem trite or make you feel uncomfortable, I have to say it really does work. There are tons of studies that show that workplaces that are supportive, congratulatory, and affirming perform better than those that don’t, even if the coworkers in both places get along. Some of it has to do with building an interpersonal connection with coworkers. You’re less likely to screw them over if you like them. Some of it has to do with feeling valued and heard.

    So, like Alison said, I start my emails with “Hi Wakeen” followed by a generic statement of well-wishing. “Hope you’ve been able to stay dry this afternoon while you were out of the office” or “Looking forward to discussing this in more detail in person, but in the mean time …” Then whatever I have to say, want, or need. Followed by “Best” or “Best wishes” and my name.

    It seems like people would just want me to get to the point, but if I’ve found that I’m reminded more often to be genuine and considerate in my interactions with my coworkers and that I’ve built some excellent relationships throughout various departments in just a couple of months. People also remember meeting me or make it a point to introduce themselves in person if we’ve only ever spoken in person. Make no mistake, I’m nobody’s doormat. But both my mannerisms and how I deal with adversity are calm but firm. (Years of directing people to sling coffee in a green apron will make a person very calm under pressure.)

    That being said, I’m sure that someone out there in the world has sneered at my well-wishes with a ‘yeah, right’ and an eye roll. That’s fine. There’s I think a certain of self-confidence it takes in refusing to care if people judge you for being polite over email. If it feels awkward at first, don’t worry. Integrating new behaviors into your routine probably will. But speaking from experience, I feel more valued in this job than in any previous, and my small department is very productive even with the additional seconds spent writing more mindful emails.

  44. Mommy MD

    I use kindly after seeing a colleague I very much respect use it in a staff message. “Can you kindly get those patient reports ready for me by this afternoon?”

    “I actually need the admission statistics sent over instead of the discharge reports you sent. Thank you kindly.”

    It softens it. I don’t like emojis in the workplace. Unless it’s a very very low key casual industry.

  45. teehee

    Try sending messages in a bottle instead so you can make a fresh batch of cookies each morning and bottle the aroma of that along with your message (full of exclamation marks and apologies for being a woman).

  46. bis

    Try reading How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings by Sarah Cooper

    Some good tips include:
    “Pepper your emails with exclamation marks and emojis so you don’t come across as too clear or direct. Your lack of efficient communication will make you seem more approachable.”

    “Pointing out a mistake is always risky so it’s important to always apologize for noticing the mistake and then make sure that no one thinks you’re too sure about it. People will appreciate your “hey what do I know?!” sensibilities.”

    “When all else fails, wear a mustache so everyone sees you as more man-like. This will cancel out any need to change your leadership style. In fact, you may even get a quick promotion!”

    1. Merula

      Is this book out somewhere? It looks like the paperback is due for release in October, but that’s all I could find. It looks amazing!

  47. Liz

    I agree re: exclamation points. In general, writing how you speak can help. If you would verbally say something with enthusiasm or positivity, an exclamation point might be best. Also, acknowledging ideas/thoughts, using contractions, and asking to keep the conversation going can help lighten the tone.

    Formal: I do not think that is the right thing to do because of reasons.

    Informal: I like the thought! I don’t think that’s the right thing because reasons, but let’s keep throwing ideas around. What about X?

  48. Random Thought

    Agree with the advice (as usual). I will also add things like: “Does that make sense?” or “Let me know if I’m missing something!” or “I understand your concern, but…”

    For example: “You need to do X. The reason is Y, and Z is also a factor. Does that make sense?”
    Or: “You said you need X, but I looked at the report and I think the real problem is Y, so you need to do Z. Let me know if I’m missing something, though!”

    And my default signature is:

    “Thanks,

    Random Thought.”

    1. gmg22

      I like this approach, too — it’s inviting the person to engage with you if they have a question or concern, which IMO always goes over better than just “Please do X, send Y, or fix Z.” Re the “let me know if I’m missing something,” same applies — but as a professional woman I do need to remind myself sometimes to avoid the similar (yet very different) approach of “I might be wrong, but …”

  49. RES ADMIN

    My boss is very task oriented. She loves bullet points.

    I send,

    “Hi!
    We had to have a conference call about the Faraway Invoices. Here is a summary of what we talked about. Please note that there are a couple items that will need your attention.

    Let me know if you need any additional info.
    Thanks!
    RA”

    It condenses things down so that the important points are easy for her to read at a glance and still sounds “friendly”.

  50. J.B.

    My husband and I are both engineers. He writes emails as short as possible. I have sent him questions before with the response “No”. Which is mildly irritating for me who knows him quite well.

    What works for me: Always always start with a greeting. Short is fine, but include someone’s name or “hi” group, all, etc if multiple people. Then at the end “Thanks!” or “Thank you, J.B.”. Within the body itself, I almost always use bullets for action items. That softens the directness for whatever reason. It does help a lot.

    1. CM

      Slate has a reputation for being contrarian just for the sake of it, though… see their many articles that have some variation of “you’re doing it all wrong.” I think I saw an article in Slate once arguing that nobody should ever use salutations or sign-offs, too. I would definitely listen to Alison’s advice instead of some random person in Slate! (Unless it’s Alison on Slate.)

      1. McWhadden

        That’s not really true. Slate’s actual articles tend to be very thoughtful and even-keeled. There are exceptions. But usually they put a lot of thought into what they are saying and raise some good points.

        What Slate is famous for is their deliberately misleading and contrarian HEADLINES.

  51. EmKay

    I need to be particularly mindful of this, as most of my coworkers are francophones, and they tend to espouse more “flowery” language in general. I grew up bilingual, so I do the flowery thing in french, and the short and sweet thing in english. My franco coworkers who’ve learned English later, or less fluently, than I have can’t code switch between both like I do, so sometimes that gets me remarks that I am curt, terse, or worse, but only in english. They all think I’m much “friendlier” in french.

    1. EmKay

      At my old job, coworkers insecure about their written english would have me review emails before sending them out. I’d invariably cut out a lot of “excess”, and they were always amazed by how much shorter their english emails were than their french ones, when saying essentially the same thing :)

  52. JessicaTate

    I think some of the examples in the post and comments are not just “task vs. relationship” or making things “more flowery.” They are qualitatively different responses, and that matters.

    So, in the “Can we serve chocolate?” example.
    V1 answer: No.
    V2 answer: Serving chocolate is a problem because of Reasons.

    The first is a dictum. Subtext: “No, we’re not doing it, the reason is not important. That is all you need know.”
    The second is a rationale. Subtext: “No, we’re not doing it, and there’s a good reason why. And it would probably be good for you to know that reason so that you can learn and apply this rationale to similar situations in the future.”

    The same thing is true with, “I need the taco report by 12:30” vs. “I need the taco report by 12:30 because the client scheduled a review meeting at 1:00.” Dictum (just do it, it’s not important why) vs. Rationale (a situation is happening that necessitates this).

    There are certainly cases where a more dictum-like response is warranted or perfectly fine. But in many situations, the rationale approach shows respect. A dictum relies on either existing levels trust or authority to be effective. A rationale shows respect and transparency to the other person, and it builds trust.

    The please / thank you / kindly / I’m sorry / etc. stuff is a different ball of wax.

    1. S-Mart

      To me, “Can we serve chocolate?” is a yes/no question, and “No.” is a valid and appropriate response. If the requester wants or needs a reason/explanation, they can ask for it. To me it’s not “…that is all you need to know.”, it’s “… that’s all you asked for.” Don’t expect the recipient to infer a need for things that were not asked for.

      Further, the V2 answer doesn’t necessarily answer the question. It gives reasons why serving chocolate is a problem, but leaves it to the original questioner to interpret whether those reasons mean “no” or “yes, with caveats/precautions”. Maybe that’s appropriate, maybe it isn’t. But it’s a functionally different response that doesn’t really directly equate to the definite “no” in version 1. It more directly equates to an “it depends”.

  53. OP here

    Hello, everyone! How’s the weather where you are?

    For the record, I! hate! exclamation! points! because I come from a writing background where you’re discouraged from using exclamatory statements where a simple declaration will do. I once replied to a text about a dinner suggestion with “That’s fine.” and the person thought I meant it wasn’t fine, because if I had really liked her idea, I would’ve said “That’s fine!” instead.

    I am more formal when I haven’t met someone, and then it’s all good with the pleasantries. Thank you for those who pointed out that Dear [Name], might be offputting. I don’t like [name only] as an opener, because that feels abrupt. I do use Hi, [name]! or Hi, [name] —

    I think whomever pointed out the difference between task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented may have hit the nail on the head. I am very task-oriented and have even warned some of the volunteers I manage, “Look, let’s agree categorically I like you as a person and there will be no hidden subtext in my emails or hidden agendas in my request. Please ask me if you’re ever in doubt.” I wish there were a magic formula for how many emails need to contain niceties because sometimes I just need to acknowledge an email or pick from a couple of choices. Must it always be effusive, Relationship People?

    Warmly,
    OP

    1. J.B.

      I get you, and often find exclamation points excessive :) I also don’t get the person who had issues with a short text. Umm, it’s a text, how many characters do you want?

      It may help to write something and then go put softeners at the beginning and the end. And conditional language and questions can sometimes help that – “do you agree?” or “here’s what I was thinking”. I think you may be dealing with some people who are too hung up on their relationship-y-ness though.

    2. EMW

      I loved when I had a task oriented boss and could take all his emails and texts at face value. If you passed him off you knew right away.

    3. McWhadden

      I don’t like exclamation points either. I try to use different language so I don’t sound terse or mad.

      Like if we make plans to meet somewhere I’ll say “Sounds good” rather than “That’s fine.”

        1. Tableau Wizard

          so much better! I’ve trained my husband to make this change because it seriously relieves so much stress in my life.

    4. 99 lead balloons

      My favorite go-to opener is “Good morning/afternoon, First Name”, for emails where “Hi” feels too casual, “Dear Name” is too formal, and just “Name, …” is too abrupt. It feels warm enough not to set off anyone’s hackles, but also signals that the email’s contents should be taken seriously. Once I’ve gotten to know someone, I usually use Hi, Hey, or Hello without exclamation points. When closing, if it feels appropriate, I’ll wish them a good weekend, happy insert-holiday-here, or general “hope you are well”.

      Exclamation points used judiciously can really help warm things up, even if it feels weird at first. My better half and I always joke about how his mom (who is actually very effusive IRL) only uses periods in text messages and how much cognitive dissonance it gives us.

    5. Gloucesterina

      I feel there’s perhaps a nicety spectrum, from more task-oriented niceties (thanks for sending thing x) to more effusive and/or non-task-oriented (stay warm out there!). Maybe a linguist can help out here?

    6. Sara without an H

      I suspect that part of the problem is that we’ve never really decided whether email was most like a written business letter or like a phone call. Business letters are formal by definition; phone calls are more casual.

      I keep my own emails fairly brief, on the principle that anything that needs more than a couple of paragraphs to explain is probably better dealt with in a meeting. Greeting the recipient by name (“Hi, Fergus”) and some sort of friendly sign off (“Thanks so much”) should be as much effusiveness as normal business relationships require.

      And scouring other peoples emails for hidden rudeness is, itself, rude.

    7. tusky

      I suppose I’ve developed a kind of exclamation point anxiety, because I increasingly worry that my sentences read as harsh in absence of the exclamation point, and yet I also worry that using exclamation points will make me seem annoyingly enthusiastic.

      The “that’s fine” example is interesting, because I think it’s not a phrase that lends itself to exclaiming–it’s an inherently tempered response (if one is over the moon about an idea, wouldn’t one use a word like “great”?)

    8. Someone Else

      I hear you in general on the exclamation points. However, if you do want to find a way to occasionally incorporate them, this might help:
      There is a tone of voice that is not quite “exclamatory” but yet is still more emphatic than a straight declarative. We don’t have a tweener punctuation mark for that. Think of your tone of voice when you’re saying outloud “Hello” with a neutral expression on your face. Now think of your tone of voice when you’re “Hello” outloud with a big smile. There’s a difference, right? The difference is probably not what your default-brain associates with exclamation points, but a random person is more likely to land on Smiling-Hello tone than Neutral (or even frowning) Hello with an exclamation point. So the point (pun intended) there is to get the person closing to the sound you want them to hear in their heads.

      I have literally had this conversation:Look, let’s agree categorically I like you as a person and there will be no hidden subtext in my emails or hidden agendas in my request. Please ask me if you’re ever in doubt. with a handful of colleagues and it always worked well for me. For the types where your relationship wouldn’t make sense to actually say that, especially if you’ve received the direct feedback that your brevity is reading as harsh, utilizing the occasional exclamation-point-to-indicate-upbeatness-in-greeting will likely have an immediate effect, like Allison said.

  54. Chelsea

    In the back of my mind, I am always wondering if people like the OP are being almost deliberately obtuse. It isn’t hard to write even a nice “hope your day is going well!” before you ask for what you need. It seems that it stems from some kind of ingrained idea that being nice to people makes you weak. It’s ridiculous. Being nice to people isn’t rocket science.

    1. OP here

      “It seems that it stems from some kind of ingrained idea that being nice to people makes you weak.”

      Really? And “deliberately obtuse” on top of that? I’m not sure how being direct can be in the same neighborhood as “obtuse”, but please tell me more about my underlying psychological motivations!

      1. Efdaman

        Your exclamation mark made that so nice!

        Seriously, keep being efficient, keep being you. The advice here saddens me as a woman who was also told to use exclamation marks in emails no more brief than my male coworkers. Your emails aren’t ruder without them.

        1. tusky

          Ugh, seriously, it’s a kind of double-bind. Like, as a woman, I feel pressure not to be too terse, lest I be perceived as cold/aggressive, but also not to seem too nice/deferential, lest I come across as “soft.”

      2. Chelsea

        My point was that you obviously don’t have to use emojis to make an email sound nice. It’s the difference between “give me this” and “Hey there, hope things are going well in your department, I was wondering if you had X on hand.”

    2. tusky

      I actually think writing, “hope your day is going well!” in every routine email request is going to come across as…not out of touch, exactly, but…excessive, maybe? I guess it doesn’t hurt to add an extra nicety, but unless it’s someone with whom I have never (or infrequently) communicated, I can’t imagine doing this as a regular thing.

      1. kc89

        yeah, like I might say “hope your day is going well!” if it’s someone I rarely e-mail, but if it’s someone I e-mail every day at work that would feel like overkill

        can’t please everyone!

      2. nym

        I think one thing that plays into it for me is the frequency of communication too. I would never use “hope your day is going well” with someone I’m emailing every ten minutes about one of the six different projects we collaborate on, just like I probably wouldn’t use “hey, how about….” as the only text in an an email to someone I talk to once every other week. But the “hey, how about” is perfectly appropriate for the person that I’m constantly back-and-forth with, and the “happy Friday” or whatever is great for the less frequent messages.

    3. Student

      I think it’s a difference in what we think of as nice, rather than being deliberately obtuse.

      I value actions more than words in my actual interpersonal relationships. It’s really easy to say, “Hope your day is going well”. It’s also really… vacuous to me. Worthless words that do nothing to actually make my day good, and that do not actually acknowledge the reality of my day, which might not be good. I’d rather get an action if I actually want emotional interaction – like an invite to lunch or a moment of shared chatter or a question about things I am doing that demonstrates interest in my work.

      I understand the intent of the phrase is to be polite and wish me well. I just don’t value that the way you do. It gives me no personal emotional comfort that my co-worker (or anyone else) hopes I am well.

      I don’t assume that people who omit that are secretly wishing me a terrible day. That would be an equally “obtuse” reading, yes? Obviously wrong. I don’t, at a fundamental level, even understand the comfort you do get out of the phrasing. It sounds like something I’d expect from a salesman, someone trying to push emotional buttons that I don’t have without having to make any real emotional investment in a relationship with me. I understand that you do like it, and try to provide it when I think it appropriate or necessary to maintain social relations.

      I do ask you to acknowledge that people like me exist and aren’t somehow inherently terrible because we don’t have the same emotional responses you do. I don’t think being nice to people makes me weak. I am not deliberately being obtuse or perverse. I try to be nice to people. I value something different than you as “niceness,” and I don’t see anything specifically nice in the phrasing that you value so highly. I’m willing to accept that you do see something there of value, if you’re willing to accept that I don’t.

    4. LadyByTheLake

      No, we aren’t being obtuse — it is just a different style and focus. I am task oriented — I am just trying to get the work done. I get literally hundreds of emails day that I need to respond to. Not only do I not have time to say “hope your day is going well” on every single email, I actually find it irritating when someone starts an email with that because I want them to get to the freaking point, but that’s my thing. :-) So, no — not obtuse, just very different styles.

    5. CanCan

      “Hope your day is going well!” is way over the top.

      How about starting a request with:
      “I wonder if you could help me with…”
      “Would you be able to do…”
      “Could you please…”
      “Any chance you can review this by tomorrow?”
      “Sorry for the short notice.”
      “Thanks so much”

      Even then, when you’re regularly sending requests to this person as part of your/their job, you don’t need these all the time. One of my coworker’s regular tasks is to send documents for me to review. (My review is a required part of the process.) If she puts too many niceties in, my feeling is: “Have I been slow in reviewing this that she feels she has to be so nice, just to have be do my job? Why is she treating me with kid gloves?”

  55. Higher ed

    In those examples, “kindly” just reads as sarcasm to me. The “kindly” doesn’t blunt the message of “hey, buddy, you screwed up; now fix it.”

    1. AnonInfinity

      Heh. When I worked in law, our form letters always used “kindly please forward us the Whatever” to mean “or else.” And those form letters also always had “I trust we can arrive at a resolution to this matter” to mean “checkmate.” I don’t work in law anymore, but I still use “kindly” and “I trust” in emails as my hammer-coming-down, veiled euphemisms for “get this stuff to me now; I’m tired of asking; my next move is to escalate to your boss.” They’re not nice words, but no one can argue that they’re mean. That’s the beauty.

    2. ladida

      I definitely use “thank you kindly” sarcastically. Someone I know uses it genuinely, and most people think he is being sarcastic.

    3. Woods-comma-Elle

      Lawyers love ‘kindly’ – it drives me crazy and I am a lawyer. It almost always comes across disingenous.

      1. Student

        From a lawyer, I would read “kindly” to mean exactly what my mother meant when she told me to clean my room “or else”. Unspecified threat, carrying potentially real weight, or covering a possible bluff. Time to fold or call, as they say.

  56. S-Mart

    This is also an area where you can’t always win. Even Alison’s ‘version 1’ examples are softer than I like to get – nevermind the ‘version 2’ “improvements”. I strongly dislike getting emails that “ask” if I can do something when ‘no’ is clearly not an acceptable response. Exclamation points on things that are not actually exclamations… ‘thank you’ emails with no actual content… Irrelevant sentences or fragments (e.g. about the weather)… All of these I wish were stricken from emails.

    I know that there are people with the opposite sensibilities, who bristle when these things are absent.

  57. Incantanto

    I think there’s a culture divide on this one: I would be offended if somebody sent me an email with Hey!

    1. H.J.G.

      Ah! I had a really long discussion with a few of my team members about this! One of my directs often starts emails with “Hey!” and to me that reads like “HEY YOU,” but she strenuously disagrees, and thinks it reads the same as “hi!” We are from different regions of the US but never quite got to the bottom of the divide. I’m interested to hear what other folks think :)

      1. CanCan

        “Hey Amy” / “Hi Amy” – followed by an exclamation point or comma is ok.

        “Hey!” or “Hi!” are equally bad.

        However, “Hey” is more on the familiar side. Not rude, but not something you’d use unless you’re writing to people you’re close to.

        “Good morning!” is better, but a bit odd. With or without a name, “Good morning/afternoon” reads as formal trying not to be formal, from a person who doesn’t value their time very much. I’ve only got it from assistants or other lower-lever personnel.

  58. phedre

    I think I’m more relationship-oriented than task-oriented, but for some reason in email I always sound more terse than I intend. I do great in person, but my emails came across weirdly cold. So I always add a greeting and a closing like “Hope you’re doing well!” or “Thanks!” or “Have a great weekend!” and occasionally with coworkers I know well I’ll add a smiley face. It’s helped soften my tone (without taking away from my message) and only takes an extra few seconds to type. I also occasionally will add a strategic exclamation point in longer emails so it feels more personable. But only one or two so I don’t come across way too informal/excited/juvenile.

  59. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish

    I teach online classes, and I’m usually the one answering questions and making comments in chat rather than doing the actual talking. I always feel a little ridiculous as a 40 year old woman typing :) all the time and using so many exclamation points, but can’t think of a more efficient way to soften the tone with limited space. And I’m so used to it that I have to fight the urge to do it in work emails. Granted, most of our students are fairly young (so it probably just looks dorky to them.)

    I do use a lot of those “fluff” words in my emails. My boss, um, does not. And even though I know she’s not being snippy, a “See me” message makes me 10000 times more anxious than a “Can you stop by my office when you have a chance.” Drives me batty.

  60. AthenaC

    Hi OP!

    Lots of good suggestions here. I personally have a script that spread to my teams, and now some of our more sarcastic clients actually make fun of us for it (but they aren’t offended by terse emails from us! Small victories).

    Sample email below:

    Hi Jean-Luc,

    Hope you’re doing well!(*)

    I’m reaching out because Wil Riker sent me in your direction(**) regarding my questions about the documentation for your latest away mission. I understand there were some complications with the local indigenous life – can you please describe briefly how the encounter resolved and whether you expect to contact them again?(***)

    Happy to talk live if it’s more convenient for you – let me know when you are available.

    Thanks!(****)

    Athena R Carson, CPA
    Manager
    Douie, Cheetham, & Howe LLP

    (*) I was also taught to never NEVER use exclamation marks under penalty of public caning, but the problem is that you sound so blah and insincere without the exclamation point for an opening like this.
    (**) Particularly useful when email is your first contact with this person, or when they know you but were not expecting to hear from you.
    (***) If you can describe in 1-2 sentences what you need, do it here. If not, skip this sentence and move to the “happy to talk live” bit.
    (****) You can use a comma here, but I find another exclamation point gives the overall communication a nice symmetry.

    And that’s just for one scenario. If you’re responding to someone else’s question, I would write at least one full sentence, and put the Yes / No (if applicable) up front. I know someone above said not to put the yes / no up front, but I think it’s more clear if I do. Close out with:

    Let me know if you need anything else,

    Athena

    When responding to someone else’s response to you, no matter how unhelpful it is, begin or end with “Thanks for your help!” or “Thanks for your help, Athena”

    Hope some of those tricks help!

    1. OP here

      Hi Athena,

      Deanna Troi sent me your way. I’d like to ask your advice for dealing with my boss. He’s a great guy and by all accounts a thoughtful leader, but he has the tendency to issue one-word directives to me with no softening language whatsoever. Maybe it’s because he’s used to talking to the computer, but how do I get him to treat me like I’m a living, breathing human with feelings?

      Sincerely,
      Will Riker

      1. AthenaC

        By any chance, does your boss speak with a British accent and bark things like “Tea! Earl Grey! Hot!” and “Make it so!” and “Come!”

    2. ladida

      Yes, make sure to justify your email by saying someone else told you to contact them. Bonus points if that someone else is a man. That way you won’t startle the person with the fact that you’re a woman doing your manager job.

  61. Student

    I know I’m the odd person out, but I really wish we could all agree to stop looking to emails to convey emotions and emotional affirmation.

    It’s not a terrible idea to want that info. Email is just inherently terrible at conveying that. If that emotional stuff is info you need, you are better off using a different communication medium. Plain old phones, video communication, or in-person meetings all come to mind.

    And, sometimes, emotional validation is just not necessary to work tasks. I understand some people really like it. Others of us don’t, though – I hate it when co-workers expect me to provide emotional validation pretty broadly. I provide it when I think it is necessary or when I think it will substantially smooth an interaction. I don’t think I should have to provide emotional support in every single darn email about minor work tasking, procedural stuff, etc.

    Can’t y’all get an office dog, or make some friends, or get a hobby, to make you feel good instead? Why are my terse emails such a big emotional impact on you? Why do you expect such deep emotional investment from me for basic, inherently emotionless, sometimes trivial job functions?

      1. Chelsea

        Exactly, I completely agree, it’s not that hard to send a polite 5-word sentence in your email showing that you’re a human with feelings.

    1. tusky

      I don’t think this is about feeling any particular way or seeking “emotional validation.” Emotion carries meaning and communication conveys emotion (whether we intend it to or not), so effective communication requires considering the emotional tenor of one’s words.

      I grant that taking the time to avoid phrasing that might be perceived as harsh or rude can feel like a big emotional investment, but I don’t see why it’s necessary to mock people who consider it a valuable investment.

    2. LGC

      It tracks back to what Alison said in her response to the LW – there’s another person on the receiving end, not an automaton. It’s a soft skills thing, like greeting your coworkers in the morning.

      Plus, I find that the effort to not be terse pays off in making my job easier. (I’m not great at my job, but I do some things fairly well.)

    3. leslie knope

      People spend most of their time at work. It’s not that weird to not want it to be like robots chirping commands back and forth at each other. Why is that so hard to understand?

      Every time this topic comes up the same question gets asked. If you don’t wan’t to interact with humans, work for yourself. Otherwise, you have to invest a little in social niceties that don’t serve any functional purpose besides making people like you. And yes, I am an introvert.

    4. Isabel Kunkle

      Basically: because some people use terseness to indicate *dis*like, and because some of those people can fire us if we’re displeased or make our jobs harder if they dislike us, so we get twitchy. Blame those folks, or end-stage capitalism in general.

      I’m not someone who needs or wants a lot of phrase, or a personal relationship with the boss, or whatever. But through experience and association, I’ve come to view terse responses as signs that I’ve screwed something up, which makes me tense, which doesn’t do anything good for my state of mind. If there was a general consensus that “No,” is baseline fine and I’d hear if someone was mad, that’d be great, but that’s not the world we live in.

    5. Zillah

      You’re really not arguing in good faith here. No one is requesting “emotional validation” from coworkers or suggesting that terse emails have a “big emotional impact” on them – people are just saying that they receive communication that’s vaguely friendly better than flat statements or orders. There’s nothing inherent about email that makes it so different from other methods of communication that it’s reasonable to expect people to not read for tone.

      Responding better when others include social niceties in communication does not mean that people do not have friends or hobbies. It means that they prefer vaguely pleasant interactions. That’s not actually a thing it’s reasonable to draw broad character judgments about.

  62. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

    This is so tough, especially for women.

    I err in the other direction, and have to review my emails to “harden” them (removing “just,” changing exclamation marks to periods, limiting when I use “please,” etc.). I even had to make a conscious adjustment not to sign every email with “Thanks.”

    I joke that nobody can tell when I’m unhappy with them, but it’s actually a professional problem. I’ll send what feels to me like an intentionally chilly email and realize later that the message didn’t get across. I need someone to translate my Minnesotan to the rest of the world.

  63. VX34

    I’m an “exclamation points and warm sign offs” sorta guy. Highly recommended.

    I feel like professional communication that reads too straightforward from any gender or level of experience comes off as rude or…I don’t know.

    Let me put it to you this way.

    If I get a message from my manager that says “Thanks!” I feel appreciated.

    If I get “Thanks” or, worse, “Thanks.” I feel like I Dun Goofed, you know?

    Some smilies happen sometimes, but I don’t rely on thise at all.

    Just my 2c.

    1. Allonge

      Wow. Even more now, I appreciate working in an international environment where most of us do not have English as a first language. We are fairly formal around here, and email a lot, but I never ever had to consider whether signing off with Thanks. as opposed to Thanks! was more or less appropriate / soft / appreciative etc. And very few of us would ever read anything into it either way, when on the receiving end.

      Which, I am not saying you don’t have a right to feel the way you feel, but reading criticism into a missing exclamation mark is for me an over-analysis. (Which I have done in my time about other things.)

  64. Wendy Wash

    I think Alison has great advice. I would try this and see if it makes a change. I’m always trying to nail communication in the workplace both electronically and in-person and am always happy to learn new things to be an effective and professional communicator.

  65. billypilgrim

    I have a gender-neutral/unisex name and have been mistaken as a woman more times than I can count because I throw in exclamation points in emails. The industry I’m in is typically more on the informal side, and most people I communicate with appreciate (I think?) the more laid-back approach to certain emails. It’s always amusing when people realize I’m a guy.

    After some time knowing someone, I’ll sometimes throw in emojis, the occasional gif, or pop-culture references. Obviously I’m not going to bombard a new client with bizarre non-sequitur memes, but with so many emails being so GD boring and trite, I like to at least make them a little different. But when it comes to the actual meat of the email, I am as clear, helpful, and professional as I can be. After relaying necessary information succinctly, in my position it’s fair game to show I’m not an automaton.

    It’s been interesting to read all these comments, and my takeaway is that most of it depends on knowing your audience and staying aware of the history and tone of communication. Just my $0.02!

  66. No Tribble At All

    Petition for a thread on Friday: favorite/ least-favorite / weirdest email salutations & closings

  67. TrixAreForAdults

    I feel similar to this LW. My job would be faster and easier if all of my co-workers loved succinct messages.

    They don’t, so I spend more time adding warmth to and personalizing my messages. It’s a bit of extra work, but it has a social reward and gives me a reputation as personable and cheerful. In my office in particular, personable and cheerful is a more valuable currency.

    Different people value different communication methods. Just watch how they write, and use their phrasing for clues as to which they prefer.

  68. Susan K

    There is a show on Netflix called “Explained,” and there is a whole episode on exclamation points. It mentioned a study where they showed people a work-related e-mail with exclamation points, and when the e-mail was sent by a woman, 49% of respondents thought it was “very professional,” but when it was sent by a man, 36% thought it was “very professional.” I’m not sure how scientific this study was, but I thought it was really interesting that there was a difference in how exclamation point use is perceived based on gender.

  69. Hey!

    Note that in some professional spheres, “hey” and “hi there” would come across as unprofessional. I work at a large insurance firm and “hey” is really only acceptable among peers on your own team, and usually only younger people under 35 or so. For clients or people who I don’t work with every day, I stick with “hi,” only a name, “hello,” or sometimes “good morning.” I’ve had coworkers get negative feedback for email someone relatively senior with “hey” in the greeting. And it is especially unacceptable with my colleagues in the UK and the rest of Europe. It’s kind of silly but good to watch out for industry/company culture before changing your greetings too much.

  70. wingmaster

    I usually start my email with a “Hi [insert name], Hope all is well…”

    Some phrases I use include:

    Following up on something: “Please advise if we are on schedule to receive your taco report. This report will help me present information better to my team.”

    Constantly following up on something that was due weeks/days ago: “Please advise if we can receive your taco report. If have not received anything since [insert date/how many times you’ve followed up]. This report will help me present information better to my team. With no information, we cannot move forward with blah blah blah. Please let me know what your challenges are and even partial information is better than nothing at all.”

    Receiving the report: “Report received with thanks.”

    Occasionally, I’ll write a sentence appreciating their hard work, because we all need to hear it! Plus you don’t need to include exclamation points.

    Sometimes I’ll throw in little things that are relevant. I work with international vendors. So for my contact in Peru, for example, I congratulated their first FIFA win. The company really appreciated my comment. Likewise, I’m in the US, so they’ll wish me a Happy 4th.

  71. LGC

    One more thing I was just thinking about: I’m often fairly sensitive to “tone” in e-mails, and part of that is because…well, I’m 34 and I’ve been online for the better part of my life. And a lot of that is because on electronic messaging (whether it’s e-mail, AIM, text message, or Slack), you do lack the traditional nonverbals…so you end up going to other things like word choice, word order, and even punctuation. (Famously, ending a text with a period can often come across as hostile.)

    Or in other words, I kind of view it as a “spoken” medium, in a way. So especially on internal e-mails, I’ll use contractions a lot, not stick to perfect syntax, and use a lot of en-dashes, ellipses, and parentheses because it’s more “stream of consciousness.” (So, kind of like this post.) Even on external e-mails, I might be very formal if it’s official, but less formal in any responses. One thing I’ll do sometimes is to imagine myself actually saying the e-mail out loud to the person, and how it’d sound if I was just calling the person instead.

    At any rate, I’m wondering if gender isn’t the main issue here. For what it’s worth, I think LW probably wouldn’t have been called out on this if she were male because frankly we expect men to be more boorish…but I think that the real issue might be cultural. LW might be approaching the majority of e-mail from the perspective of a business letter, where – yes – you might need to be really formal and direct. But if you spoke like that to a lot of people…well, of course they’d be put off by your terseness. (I’ve sent some pretty tersely-worded e-mails in my time. I’ve been called out on it myself, and I’m a guy.)

    Also, one more piece of advice: Especially on intra-office e-mails, definitely add a bit of humor! You can’t smile in e-mail, but you can be funny. Start with a really light touch at first, though – obviously, it’s harder to tell what’s humorous without context in text, but with people you work with often they’ll pick up fairly easily.

    1. Zillah

      (Famously, ending a text with a period can often come across as hostile.)
      YES. My roommate doesn’t understand texting – I think I’m the only one he ever texts at all – and I’ve had so many “… is he mad at me??” only for him to be perfectly cheerful when he walks in.

  72. Jo

    Oh I feel you.

    Fortunately I have an amazing assistant who possesses that magical ability to write warm and welcoming messages. So. Five years ago I asked him to review and provide suggestions to warm up my otherwise overly direct and dry emails. He appreciated the opportunity to pull out the red pen and show me how it’s done. And I learned how to be more relaxed towards the reader, without compromising the message.

  73. KF

    OP, how formal are your emails? I tend to not use contractions when writing, for whatever reason, and not consciously, even for more informal communications. It makes my emails sound a lot stiffer than intended. Instead of changing my natural writing style, I go back over my email before sending and put in the contractions which can soften the tone considerably.

    1. OP here

      The only formal emails I’ll send are when I’m approaching someone in a professional context I don’t know for the first time. It’s “Dear – ” and “Sincerely,” Then I take their cues from how they do their email.

      I can code switch between industries and I write conversationally. I’m not an alien!

      I think it does come down to task-orientation vs. relationship-orientation, and I’m already surprised by how strongly some people are analyzing information-only emails if they don’t include the right amount of exclamation points and commenting on the weather. This may be a potato-potahto situation.

  74. Delta Delta

    I’m late to this party but want to add this:

    1. As has been mentioned upthread, we lawyers tend to write short, subject-verb sentences in our emails. That’s probably because we have been trained to think in a certain way (which is impossible to undo, as it turns out). There can also be ambiguity if communication isn’t clear. I once had a non lawyer tell me I had to be nicer in my emails and that they felt like I was cross examining her. I told her if that’s how it felt then she would be in for a real shock when I really did cross examine her. (And then one time I did have to and yes, she was surprised because it was not pleasant). I am not kidding when I say the offending email was literally this sentence: “Did Fergus appear for his appointment on Thursday?”

    That said, I started adding “good morning” and similar greetings to emails and now I’m referred to as very nice. So, good, I guess?

    2. People who think they’re being cutesy or folksy by abbreviating “thank you” into “TY,” “thx,” “tx” or similar need to be shaken by their shoulders. Nobody is so busy they can’t type 5 letters instead of 2. To me, this screams “I am so important and so busy that I can’t give my email recipients the time of day to type out an entire, if insincere, thank you.” Especially irritating is when this comes at the end of a very long email, because you know it was composed at an actual keyboard and with thought behind it.

    Sorry. End rant.

  75. Woods-comma-Elle

    A colleague does this in person, rather than e-mail, but a guaranteed way to come across as rude/chastising/overstepping is to use ‘need’ inappropriately and this might be one to avoid in e-mails too.

    You need to do X. You need to call Y.

    Most of the times these are not situations where ‘need’ is warranted. If someone ‘needs’ to be done, I am going to do it. if you are after help or a favour, need does not come into it (unless it’s “I need X, can you help me?”). It comes across super-patronising, like suggesting the person doesn’t know how to do their job. There is a place and time for it, but this is my pet hate.

  76. Technical_Kitty

    I cannot imagine a single male in my entire company using any of these in emails. I have personally been chastised by my boss (who notices very little of what I do) for using this sort of “softer” language. So, maybe not for use in mining?

  77. jstarr

    Oof. While I agree with adding Hey, Thank you, and a reason for the email to the actual email, I wouldn’t go much further. I’m already a female dealing with a male led, female heavy job and I got burnt out by code switching so much. Some of the women thought I was mad at them for a while but after I explained why I went back to my normal mode of communication and showed them what the male overlords were doing, they understood.

  78. Lauren

    I’m not a fan of emojis or exclamations, but as a woman I’m judged by using normal communications without those warmer add-ons. I started to ignore my bosses that commented on my ‘curtness’, and only did emojis and exclamations for them vs. everyday emails. Essentially managing up for those that think its important for women to be extra nice when men are allowed to do their jobs without the add-ons and pretending everything is a request vs. you are my direct report and i’m giving you work assignments. I hate, I struggle with it. I do it naturally when I like the other person and I am really expressing an emoji. I also have bitmoji wars with my team, which is its own thing.

  79. yourmusicisbadandyoushouldfeelbad

    I can’t believe this isn’t even addressing possible sexism and the possibility that OP’s emails might not actually be brusque. Sad day.

  80. Michaela Westen

    I didn’t learn good communication skills growing up, and had to learn them as an adult. It’s been a life project learning how to build good relationships and I’m continually trying to learn, including at work.
    I’ve had good results by trying to make people feel appreciated. So I might open with “thanks again for your help/all your help with…” If it’s someone I haven’t communicated with in a while, I say first, “I hope you are well.” Maybe add “and family” if I know they have a family.
    How I do this also depends on the relationship – if I feel more formal with them or less, adjust accordingly.
    Then say the business part, then usually at my current workplace close with “Thank you” or “Thanks”.
    When I worked at a company with international business it was common to close with “Warm regards”, “Best regards” or just “Regards”, depending on the level of formality.
    It’s also good to use your instincts about how it will make them feel, and take cues from the way they’ve treated you. :)

  81. Michaela Westen

    it was common to close with “Warm regards”, “Best regards” or just “Regards”, depending on the level of formality.
    I should say, level of acquaintance and formality. For complete strangers, “Best regards” seems better than “Warm regards”, but maybe that’s just me.

  82. Allotropic

    If there’s anything I learned from seeing all sots of e-mail styles, it’s that most people really appreciate context. It’s subtle, and doesn’t have to (nor should it) be long-winded, but motivating to know WHY you’re being asked to do something. Allison’s v2 of the taco report at noon to get it to a client on time is a great example this.

  83. fyoder tchaikowicz

    got an email yesterday from someone in the org i didn’t know that said : “fill out the attached spreadsheet. if you have any questions call me”.

    i was like “nice to meet you too…” as to questions, there was no question in my mind that i didn’t give a crap about this person or their spreadsheet. i just deleted the email and went on.

  84. strange words

    I’m ranting for a second. I’m a direct person, and I receive the feedback that people find me intimidating or too brusque somewhat regularly. I say good morning/afternoon, please, thank you, have a nice day, please let me know if you have any questions – and I really think that’s enough. It’s more than a lot of men do in their communications. But as a woman with direct reports, I’m expected to flower and smiley things up and to be responsible for how someone feels reading my email – and to also be responsible for managing my emotions about whatever emails I receive. We can’t expect men to be nicer, this is business!

    I guess I’m task oriented, and came from a law background to my current management position in the trades. [Don’t get me started on the constant low-grade sexism in companies with all-male field staff and all- or mostly-female inside admin staff. There aren’t enough good curse words in the world.]

    At what point are we all expected to grow up and realize that text has no tone, and 90% of the tone we perceive is all ourselves? Is someone actually being rude in direct words, or are you imposing rude through your own filters?

    *grumble*

  85. Deborah

    In the past, I’ve gotten this feedback a lot. I’ve softened my tone and have not received this feedback in a while. Funny thing is, I doubt any man in my role – sending the exact same email – would ever get this critique.

  86. Quinalla

    I tend to overly soften my messages to the point where I have to go back and make them more direct (but not too direct, I’m still a woman, so yeah, can’t win if I get too direct /sigh). But yeah, just a quick Thanks! or Thank you! at the end of an email will help a ton, I know some people even make it part of their signature.

    I think the most direct emails I’ve ever gotten are from folks in NYC. They really aren’t that direct/rude in person or on the phone, maybe more direct/rude than the Midwest, but not that different, but wow in emails it is amazing. At my last job, it took us awhile to figure that out, we just thought the PM in NYC who worked for our client hated us until we met him in person and he was wonderful and had great things to say about it. Just so direct and often outright rude and zero softening of anything. At the place I work now, we have a big document on how to work in NYC: permitting, how the city is laid out, etc. but it also includes how direct folks are in email and to not get offended or assume they are mad at you.

  87. Sara A Miller

    Regarding the addition of exclamation points, there is a really interesting Explained episode on Netflix about exclamation points, and whether they “appear professional” to readers depending on the GENDER of the sender! Super interesting episode, and I highly recommend the whole series. https://www.netflix.com/title/80216752

  88. Zillah

    I think a lot of people are bothered by some of the implications around social niceties (especially “I’m sorry!” and “I wish I could”), and I get that, especially since there is a gendered component to it.

    I often use “have fun” or “good luck,” depending on the situation – they don’t always work, but they often do, and I think they can make a “no” friendlier without being insincere. There aren’t a whole lot of situations where I’m actively rooting for someone to have a miserable time or to flat out fail.

    (But to be clear: not all nos should be friendly, and boundary-pushers or assholes often should get the terse no.)

  89. Miss Elaine e.

    How does one determine:
    A. It’s just the blues that will pass.
    B. One needs to explore anti-depressants.
    C. One should consult a counselor/therapist.
    D. One should consult a psychiatrist?

    Thanks

  90. Jack V

    I’ve always found it surprisingly hard to write niceties that don’t reflect how I’d naturally express polite courtesy. But eventually I accepted that for everyone, courtesy is what they’re used to, and figuring out some turns of phrase that fit in with what other people use, and just including them whether they feel natural or not, is the nice thing to do — and I can’t always do nice things for people, but I really do mean to be polite to them, and if cutting and pasting a polite greeting has that effect, then I *do* mean it, even if I don’t feel like I mean it.

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