How to Handle Someone who Thinks your Email is Hostile

Dear Mrs. McVeigh,
What is your thought on emotionally charged emails? It’s impossible to interpret tone from an email, so we must do our best to attempt to give off a professional tone. What are your thoughts on overuse of bolding, exclamation marks, and all caps? As the owner of an academic tutoring and management company, part of my job is to email teachers on behalf of parents. I received an email once in reply to an email where I wrote a bulleted list of items that needed to be addressed by the school for my student. In this email, I bolded what I felt was the most important sentence that summarized the needs of the student. The response from the school counselor was that the bold sentence came across as hostile. So, how do we distinguish between effective communicative strategies and potentially perception of emotionally charged content?

Lindsey Thompson

Dear Ms. Thompson,
Tone is a very big issue when writing an email. When writing anything where the tone of the email could be misinterpreted, read it out loud. You should also show it to someone else to get his opinion on how it is coming across before you hit “send.” An even better alternative is when possible, pick up the phone or meet in person. A lot of people hide behind email, so they do not have to face unpleasant confrontation.

In the case of the counselor saying the bolded sentence in your email was hostile, the logic you gave makes sense. Hopefully you were able to communicate this to him/her after his response. I would also communicate that if you have an issue that is serious to the point of hostility, you will call him or ask for an in-person meeting. Overall, I am against the all cap “rule” that this means you are angry. Why write an angry email at all? Constructing a well thought out email that makes your points with a kind but firm tone will get you further. When I receive a rude email I am immediately on the defense and do not want to help the writer of the email solve his problem at all.