Let’s get one thing out of the way first: Email is a terrible means of communication. Slack and its ilk included, there’s still no good digital duplicate to the basic social niceties that grease most of our interactions and make sure we all get along well enough. No amount or combination of exclamation points or emojis can replace a warm smile or a pleasant tone of voice.
So while it certainly makes sense to practice writing shorter, more emotionally intelligent emails, there’s a limit to what you’ll ever be able to accomplish between hitting “new message” and “send.” The real reason your emails are getting on your coworkers’ nerves has nothing to do with what, how, or when you write – it’s all a matter of human psychology. Here’s why and what to do about it.
Back to basics
Inevitably – and often without even realizing it – your colleagues have to fill in a lot of details when they read any email from you. They’re making guesses about your intent and tone: Did you mean that particular statement seriously or ironically? Does that sarcasm reflect frustration or lighthearted humor? And that request you’re making – do you realize the burden it places on others? To answer many of these implicit questions, a sender will fill in the gaps with what they know (or don’t know) about you personally.
Which means that if your email bothers its recipient, there’s a good chance it isn’t the email itself that’s the problem, but you. An identical email coming from someone else might be received and interpreted much differently.
The solution is simple: As soon as interpersonal guesswork gets in the way of your message, it’s time to inject some interpersonal substance in its place. Engage with your colleagues directly (i.e. not digitally) when you get the sense they’re feeling annoyed by your emails (or to prevent that from happening in the first place). Pick up the phone when there’s something you need or when you have to respond to a series of queries rather than just get one simple thing squared away. Set up a quick chat in person to give feedback on a report. Offer to grab a cup of coffee to go over it together.
What you gain by avoiding email (as much as possible)
You might object that you don’t have time for all this real-time contact. But what email was designed to do in the first place is to make it easier for busy people to communicate. But even most short conversations actually take longer over email. You have to switch over to your inbox, skim the prior message to remember where you left off, and repeat this process several times each as the thread continues.
With real conversation, you can often reach the same outcome in about the time it would take you just to read and respond to a single email in the chain. (That’s exactly what fellow Fast Company contributor Allen Gannett found when he tried replying “call me” to all the emails he received for a week straight.) On top of that, when you actually talk to someone, you have a chance to gauge their reaction to what you’re saying in real time. You can convey your warmth and respect for your coworkers much more easily in person than in written text–whether it’s email, Slack, Google Hangouts, or what have you.
There are other reasons why analog interactions are usually better than dashing off replies like, “Thanks so much! :} You’re the best Carlos!!” For one thing, when you talk to Carlos in person, his facial expression and tone of voice can give you a sense of whether he sees your request as asking too much, and this way you’ll know how and whether to acknowledge the magnitude of the favor.
Second, it’s easier to express appreciation in person. Saying “thanks” in the same email as your request makes it sound like your gratitude is really just another part of the ask. And if you hold off to say thanks in a follow-up email solely for that purpose, then, as short as it is, you’re wasting their time.
So don’t just save complicated stuff for phone calls and in-person meetings. Try handling a few of your smaller requests in person as well. You’ll build better, stronger relationships at work in the process. And by sending fewer emails altogether, you’ll be less likely to annoy the people receiving them.