Should the 1-word email ever be used? Here’s the verdict

Seeing a one-word email in your inbox is never a welcoming sight, especially when it comes from your boss.

The brevity of an email containing one word leaves the receiver to interpret what the sender wants in return. At times, it can seem like an open door for collaboration but it can often spark dread and wonder, leaving the receiver to think hard about what the sender expects in return and whether their response will meet expectations.

It’s a tactic often used by managers in a time-saving move that can instill pause and worry, which most often is not what managers are hoping to accomplish.

So, let’s talk about Apple CEO Tim Cook. Cook is a genius — he turned Steve Jobs’ vision into an empire by making Apple into the most profitable company ever. The iPhone has made us rethink the way we live and Apple is the gold standard of technology.

Earlier this month, Apple reached a $2 trillion valuation mark, making it the most valuable company in the world. It’s a stunning accomplishment considering the tech giant had hit a $1 trillion valuation mark just two years ago in August 2018.

While Cook’s genius likely cannot be argued, the way in which his communication was recently celebrated can be scrutinized. Inc. recently ran a column with the headline “This 1-Word Email From Apple CEO Tim Cook is a Master Class in Emotional Intelligence.” Interesting. In the column, the author goes on to applaud Cook for sending a one-word email (“Thoughts?”) to some of his most trusted honchos and dresses brevity into beauty.

Here’s what the author had to say:

First, Cook, the CEO of one of the most valuable companies in the world, could have dismissed the original message as a small-time complaint coming from a programmer who didn’t understand Apple’s overarching goals and strategy.

But he didn’t.

Or, in contrast, Cook could have been shocked by the email and made an immediate change based on an emotional reaction, forcing others to deal with any resulting mess.

He didn’t do that, either.

Cook also could have taken the Jeff Bezos route, and forwarded the complaint for handling–along with a single question mark. But that type of email can easily be seen as curt or intimidating. As my colleague Bill Murphy likes to say, it’s the email that “scares the heck out of everyone.”

But Cook’s email doesn’t carry that connotation. Instead, it reads like an honest concern, and a genuine invitation to his most trusted advisers to share their opinions on a complex matter.

What? A one-word email is promoting collaboration and idea-sharing? “Reads like an honest concern?” Sure, it says something that one of the most powerful people on the planet right now has the time to respond to an email but let’s not start making one-word emails part of workplace vernacular.

In an era like the COVID-19 pandemic where in-person communication has been eliminated and most business is proceeding remotely, there has never been a time where communicating is more important. Considering that 85% of employees feel they are unable to raise a concern with their bosses, a one-word email isn’t likely going to patch up potholes in a route to trustworthiness.

So what purpose does the one-word email have in the workplace and how should it be used?

Danny Rubin, the founder of Rubin, an educational company that provides an online curriculum that teaches schools and organizations communication skills, told Ladders that while brevity can be good at times, it often flirts with jarring and can set off worry signals to the recipient.

“For a manager, you have to be so careful with every word because the recipient is going to scrutinize it. Really anyone, colleagues at the same executive level, employees below, customers — there is going to look between the lines and try to find out what the meaning is,” Rubin said.

“It may have meant nothing, but the recipient is going to pour and try to dissect a certain meaning behind it. Even if there is meaning, you would want to be a little more evenhanded or a little more inviting because it just sends people running and talking to themselves in their heads.”

Rubin said one-word emails or short responses are sometimes the product of a manager not being as hands-on in the day-to-day operations, which is a product of not having enough information. What that does is leaves meaning up for interpretation.

“It opens up this whole pandora’s box or a world of trying to read someone’s mind. It creates all these anxieties on how to answer your boss when the boss could have added just one more line that can be an explainer. It leaves the [receiver] scrambling to say the right thing,” he said.

Open-ended questions need to go

Whether it’s one word or something different, open-ended questions can put an unnecessary onus on the recipient to analyze the meaning behind a short email, argues Hassan Osman, PMO Director at Cisco Systems and Author of “Don’t Reply All” (views are his own and not those of Cisco).

“You’re thinking of two things when you receive that: How much time do I really need to spend on this and how do I respond?” Osman said.

“The problem with those questions is expectations are not set on the outset of what they really mean… When it’s something that is new to you or you don’t have a preset of what those expectations are, then I wouldn’t be a big fan of them.”

Cook isn’t the only one guilty of this. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is known for sending single character emails with just a “?” which Bezos described as shorthand for problem-solving.

“That question mark is just a shorthand for, ‘Can you look into this? Why is this happening? What’s going on?’” Bezos said.

Osman said that if team members are aware that that type of communication is part of management’s style, then the precedent is set and the meaning is clear. Managers can do that by explaining beforehand how their messaging should be perceived, according to Osman.

But if a CEO or manager doesn’t set communication standards, here’s how Osman would respond:

“With any open-ended question, you want to defer to having an actual conversation or meeting. If I got a ‘Thoughts?’ type-of-email from a CEO, I would acknowledge it and keep it very brief. I would push for saying, ‘My next steps are I’m going to dig a little bit deeper in this and we can further discuss on our next status meeting,

“You need to get a better sense of what that executive is thinking — what are their expectations?”

Especially with COVID-19 shifting the workforce remotely, Osman, who’s worked with remote teams for nearly 15 years, said he’s boiled down the reason why remote teams fail to two words: ineffective communication.

“That’s the root cause of failure in any team you work on,” he said. “One-word emails are just one example of not being very effective at communicating and it’s not a great recipe for success if you take it as a default method,

“You need to overcommunicate when you’re on a virtual team because of the lack of the usual signals we send when we’re meeting face-to-face.”