How can I improve my tone in emails so that they're not read as being “condescending”?

ggiaquin16 05/22/2018. 10 answers, 7.829 views
work-environment coworkers email

Being a programmer, I largely run on the logical/factual side which tends to get me in trouble with my emails being read in tones not intended. One email, I even was sat down with my boss for being "condescending" when I by no means meant it that way at all. I just try to layout the information as concise as I can while being informative and cutting out the fluff. I again had my boss talk to me today about my tones used in the emails and I am wondering what I can do to avoid people reading them with the wrong tone?

The line in an email flagged as condescending:

Hi Bob, I currently don't have the luxury of time to look at the issue right now as I am trying to get a high priority project done."

My manager told me that this was taken as being condescending by the recipient. For those wondering, The following lines asked how important the issue is (which was never communicated to me until after my boss talked to me), and if needed, I can take a look at such and such time/day and then proceeded to provide some knowledge about what I knew of the subject off the top of my head.

Usually, these emails are sent out via team leads/project managers/Senior developers or someone who is aware of the political climate and is able to word things appropriately, but my company does not have these roles and it is up to us.

EDIT: I wrote this as a comment but felt it was important enough that it may change some responses: I probably was feeling like "go away" kind of attitude. I was getting a lot of pressure to get this project done in a relatively unreasonable time frame while also holding some benefits hostage based on its completion. I definitely realize that does not make my response excusable, but wanted to provide more context.

Also it should be noted that this was not the only content of the email! The email as a whole was close to 4 paragraphs explaining my knowledge that I knew off the top of my head about the situation and the application. This line was highlighted because of the poor word choice.

10 Answers

scohe001 05/23/2018.

I think your problem here is the word "luxury." Not only would the line flow just as well if you cut it out, but it's insinuating that the person emailing you isn't as busy as you are. It's probably being taken as "not everyone has the luxury of free time at work like you do," which I don't think you're trying to convey.

Instead, that line could be rewritten (taking out the redundant "currently" and "right now") as:

Hi Bob,

I won't be able to look at the issue right now as I'm very busy with a high priority project.

However, even this may be taken as insulting! Unfortunately, humans are not as nice to work with as machines. There's no bob.reply(ggiaquin16.busy, false); method to call. While it's good to remove emotion and keep your work emails objective, you also have to be careful not to be emotionless--there's always room to be polite!

As such, I'd actually modify the line further to add an apology, as that's the polite thing to do when you cause inconvenience. This will also help lead into the rest of your email where you suggest things you can do despite being busy.

Hi Bob,

Sorry, but I won't be able to look at the issue right now as I'm very busy with a high priority project. However, ... {helpful things here}

I know you say that you enjoy "cutting the fluff" (and I can relate!) but the addition of those first 2 tiny words makes all the difference where human interaction is involved.

Clay07g 05/22/2018.

You need to work on your written communication skills.

Being logical and factual has nothing to do with it. You're implying that you can't be logical and factual as well as tactful in your emails. That's simply not true.

Let's look at why the example was wrong:

the luxury of time

Time spent doing your job is not a luxury. This phrase implies that anyone you can spare the resources to do the task is somehow working a luxurious job while you labor away.

You also say:

I am trying to get a high priority project done

This implies that Bob's request is harming your efforts in a task that you are asserting is worth more than Bob's work.

Cut that out. Those details are just your opinions. You claim you don't like fluff, but using words like "luxury" and including the importance of your work is fluff.

Once you cut out unimportant details, focus on conveying a friendly environment.

Proper, polite communication is part of your job. Political climate is irrelevant.

Focus on positive sentences:

Hi Bob, I would but I am currently tied up in another project right now. Can this task wait until I'm freed up a bit? Maybe in [X] [days/hours]?

Including specific dates and times helps Bob determine your email was sincere. If you just reply "I don't have time", it will come across as "Go away and don't bug me". To put it simply, that makes you a bad employee.

This advice is not specific to your job. Your company should not need to have designated roles for these emails because their employees are incapable of proper human interaction.

Important Note: Face the facts. Your email was condescending. You didn't mean to do it. That's fine, mistakes happen. We are here to learn. But you need to accept the facts here so you can move on.

Helpful Tips:

  • Facts aren't always useful. The priority of your work is irrelevant unless asked specifically, even if it's true. Only include them when needed, never before.
  • If you don't convey your intentions, you open up your words to interpretation. Always say what you mean and explain your rationale if it is ambiguous.
  • A little "fluff" goes a long way for politeness. However, it's not really fluff. Using words in text that explain your emotions are a substitute for Body Language, and are very important if they add value to the interpretation of the other person.
  • Text has tone. The English Language is vast enough to express yourself. Use it wisely and take into consideration your culture, as well as Connotation. If your text is so concise that it loses your intentions, it's not concise, it's lacking.
  • No one has the ability to read your mind through their computer. All they have is what you write. They are not required to figure out your intentions. If you make them do this, not only can you be in trouble when they take it the wrong way, but you also waste their time attempting to dissect it.
  • Some people are better at this than others. If you are constantly having trouble expressing yourself via Email, find a way to talk to the other person face-to-face.

Dave Goldberg 05/22/2018.

If you truly are not trying to be condescending, then you'll need to work with your boss to come up with ways to reword your emails. For example, instead of telling people that you

"don't have the luxury of time to look at the issue right now"

your boss might suggest saying something like

I'm working on a high priority project that I don't feel I can interrupt. Could you please contact (my boss) with this matter and have him tell me what priority to put on it?

In other words, you aren't telling the sender that their problem is unimportant (which your original email implied). Instead, you are saying that your boss will have to make a call as to whether it's reasonable to switch what you are working on.

One other approach you could try is that when you write such an email, try to imagine that you sent the original request, and that the request is important to your work. How would you feel about the reply you are sending?

HDE 226868 05/22/2018.

A few bits strike me as problematic about that excerpt:

  • The phrase "the luxury of time" could imply that you think dealing with this problem is merely a "luxury", while the other person might consider it a necessity. From their point of view, you've just minimized something troubling. I would personally find this offensive; it's not really a "luxury" to get work done, is it? If you want to keep this general phrase, maybe switch it to simply

    the time at the moment

    which retains your original point without coming across the wrong way.

  • The ending "I am trying to get a high priority project done" could also be taken the wrong way, to imply that the other issue is low priority. Maybe this is a generous interpretation, but I don't think the phrasing helped. I'd be fine with it, but others - including your coworker - might not. A possible phrasing change would be

    I am currently trying to finish a really, really important project that needs my full attention

    This emphasizes both the importance of your main project and the fact that you're the one who has to do it; you can't (or shouldn't) merely delegate it to someone else (I assume).

  • The general brevity of it. I've . . . maybe done a poor job of this in emails I've written, and I've been making a point of fixing that lately. If that sentence is the only part of the email you've dedicated to addressing that concern, then that's going to come across as pretty rude.

Aside from replacing or removing those first two problematic phrases, I would suggest extending that excerpt a little bit more.1 You could, for instance, add on

I'll try to get to this when I have more time - feel free to email me again in a day or two, if I don't get around to it before then.

which shows that you do care about the problem and will help when you can. I do this when possible. It makes the other person feel good because they know you haven't forgotten, it makes you feel good because you've gone part of the way towards helping someone, and it makes your boss feel good because employees are helping one another and getting things done. It's a win-win-win!

Also, it won't hurt to mention this again to the coworker, if you happen to see them later, and just repeat why you can't help right now, but will be able to later.

I typically like to expand on this a bit by talking about what I'll do in the future. For instance, a lab partner recently emailed me asking if I had done any analysis yet on the spectroscopy data we'd gotten, and whether his calculations seemed right. Here's something I'm glad I didn't write:

No, I haven't. I'm working on the weekly problem set right now.

Instead, I wrote something along the lines of

Sorry, I haven't had time yet! I'll look into it in more detail tomorrow, but if you check the spectral lines at X, Y, and Z nm, you can get a good diagnostic of whether our lines fit the model. I'll get back to you when I test this out.

That's a bit more reassuring than the first choice, right?

If you want to ask your manager for feedback on your next email, that might not be a bad idea. They've pointed out a problem, and showing them that you're working on it builds trust more than anything else. Maybe this is overkill and maybe it's not; it's all up to you. Communication is really important. Make sure you get it right.

1 You've clarified that your original email contained a couple paragraphs talking about the problem! That's great; it looks like you did that right. Having only a brief email was my main concern at first. At this point, then, the only thing you need to worry about is the specific phrasing, as I talked about at the start of the answer.

Haakon Dahl 05/22/2018.

In direct answer to your "How can I improve my tone" question, here are some things that work for me:

  • Actually smile when you write the email.
    • This helps friendly up your actual intent, I have found.
  • Pretend the person is looking over your shoulder, and you are just putting an agreement in writing for the record.
    • Helps foster a collaborative tone.
  • Invite your co-worker to help find a way to get it all done.
    • You acknowledged that you had a "go away" feeling while writing the mail. Try acknowledging the issue head-on.

It is absolutely alright to set priorites, and for some things to crowd others off the schedule. Everybody is short of time, and everybody should understand this.

I hope these things help if you should try them.

FINALLY, look at this answer to see how I have softened the message, and tried to "meet you half way", establishing common ground. :-)

PlayDeezGames 05/22/2018.

Answer: You need to sound apologetic, even (and perhaps especially) if you aren't.

In other words, don't cut the fluff. In fact, it sounds like you need to add extra fluff. You have inadequate fluff. This "fluff" is called "soft skills".

The line you report as having been flagged reeks of the "you are bothering me, go away" sort of attitude.

More or less, every similar request should be met with something like:

Hi Bob! Unfortunately, I've got very little bandwidth to take on new work. Would you mind coming by for a few minutes (or make a brief meeting) in order to discuss where your ask lines up compared to my current priority list to see if I can somehow wedge it in? Thanks!

This says:

  • You are busy (the "unfortunately" is the apologetic part, it says "I'm sorry" without actually saying "I'm sorry").
  • You are not unwilling to help. Likely, you have NO bandwidth, but you never say NO bandwidth, you always say "very little" bandwidth.
  • Other things may prevent you from helping.

"But that's what I said in my flagged sentence," you say.

No, you didn't. Break it down:

  • "I currently don't..." - this is non-negotiable and inflexible sounding. It might be true, but that's now how to communicate this.
  • "...the luxury of time..." - sounds snarky and sarcastic.
  • (the rest is likely OK, but completely ruined by the beginning bit)

Beanluc 05/23/2018.

It's condescending because it says "My stuff is more important than your stuff."

A better approach would be to state in a fairly neutral way that you have a current priority which was assigned to you by (whatever authority set that priority for you) and ask the requester to send their request to (whatever authority sets your priorities for you).

The benefit of this is that it can't be interpreted as a macho contest between you and the requestor. It may turn out to be that your boss's stuff is more important than this other person's stuff, in which case it'll be up to your boss, not you, to communicate that in a graceful way. Or whoever it is who gave you your priorities.

It'll save you from making a statement which sounds like you're judging their need to be less important. That's what was condescending about it.

Keep this in mind, too: Unnecessarily flowery language very often carries unintended meanings.

"I'm not going to be able to do that before the name-of-project deadline" versus "I don't have the luxury, my work is high priority". For someone who "largely runs on the logical/factual side", you included some unnecessary messages there.

And you did so with language which invokes emotion ("luxury" evokes hedonism) and personal judgement (you all but called their work unimportant) rather than bare uninflected facts (your simple unavailability and lack of freedom to flex).

Keep it simple, use small words, it's less likely to result in unintended perceptions.

ChrisW 05/23/2018.

Hi Bob, I currently don't have the luxury of time to look at the issue right now as I am trying to get a high priority project done.

I don't think you'd write that way to your mother or father, would you?

Even if you would, would you write that way if you were writing a condolence letter (e.g. to a war widow)?

The clearest example I've read, of different tones in writing, is Ursula LeGuin's Bryn Mawr Commencement Address (1986) -- I recommend that if only to see how much variety is possible -- and how to write in a way that seems familiar or close: rather than distant, and haughty, and trying to conceal emotions and long-term personal relationships and so on in favour of "objective truth".

Also, you didn't ask this (i.e. you only asked about "tone"), but the content isn't especially helpful either: it reads as criticism (i.e. "you're taking my time") but not as constructive criticism (i.e. what should they do instead?) -- you've left the reader at an impasse.

It might be more helpful to say something like, "I'm afraid it would take me me about 8 hours to research this properly before answering -- if you want me to, could you please schedule this with my manager? Because I don't think I could find the time, otherwise."

nurgle 05/23/2018.

Your response does come off as condescending, mostly because it gives off a "stop bothering me I don't have time for this" kind of vibe which may well be how you were feeling at the time.

It's easy to let that creep into your communications even if you don't mean it that way.

I don't think you need to fluff it up or baby the person who emailed you; but you can leave out how you feel and respond factually:

Hi Bob,

I'm tied up working on X, if this is urgent please let my boss know, otherwise I'll get to it soon as I can.

Short, sweet, factual, neutral, and non condescending. The key is to catch how you are feeling at the time and leave out any inkling of it, or any assumptions about their issue. Focus purely on when you can address it and nothing more.

This also gives your boss the option to make a call on priorities, since there's always the chance that this is more important that what you're working on.

J. Chris Compton 05/23/2018.

So, if you want to keep working there, you have a real issue.
If your manager has spoken to you twice about being perceived as rude to coworkers you have a problem, a big one, bigger than your technical problem. The problem isn't how others are interpreting your tone, the problem is with what you're writing.

Most of the other answers already posted are true and have good points.

Here are two I will emphasize:

  1. Being right/logical isn't an excuse for your tone.
    To put it bluntly: you are beginning to make your manager look bad at his/her job.

  2. Your attitude actually did come through on the email... accurately.
    What you actually thought, but didn't intend to write, came through to that person.
    Good news is - you aren't as bad at this as you thought (not sarcasm).

My advice:
The next time you have to write an email to someone you are annoyed with, hit reply, blank out the To and CC boxes, then write the email.
Save it as a draft and put something on your calendar to look at it an hour later.

After you calm down, reread it.
If you are not happy with it rewrite it. Repeat in an hour.

Once you are happy with it - print it out and take it to your boss. Say, something like, "I know I've previously had issues with my tone in emails. Can you look at this real quick and see if I have done better?" Don't get defensive about what s/he says - you want to make this about an opportunity for you to learn - be teachable!

I have been where you are.
You are possibly in much bigger trouble than you realize.

I was getting a lot of pressure ... while also holding some benefits hostage based on [the project's] completion.

I don't know what that means unless they're saying you can't take PTO until you're done. Either way, sounds like a good separate question for workplace.SE

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