How to Avoid Harsh-Sounding Emails

How to Avoid Harsh-Sounding Emails

When I came online several years ago, I suffered a bit of culture shock. My normal tone of voice, the one I used in everyday speech that was always well received, was instantly inappropriate online.

I wasn’t a jerk. I wasn’t rude. I wasn’t cursing people out. But often, the mood of written conversation with peers, colleagues and clients would change from friendly discussion to prickly defence.

And I couldn’t figure out why.

I’d look back over what I’d written and wonder what I’d said. I’d examine the discussion to see where I’d gone wrong. It was puzzling – nothing seemed out of place at all. It was all good, all normal.

So why did it feel like I’d suddenly pissed someone off?

You probably know the answer to this one by now – plenty of articles out there talk about the importance of body language in communication. Except online, in writing, there aren’t any bodies at all.

We can’t see smiles or friendly expressions. We can’t hear a person’s voice when we read an email. We’re missing the details that help us perceive the mood of the moment. All we see are blunt words. Black and white.

And lacking those important visual and auditory cues to fill in the blanks of intended tone, those words often read like machine-gun bullets.

No wonder people get prickly.

I quickly learned how to make sure my true tone of voice and mood rang through loud and clear in my written communication. My straightforward writing style got smoothed out with an extra dose of friendly. I learned the fine art of diplomacy and gift-wrapping. I figured out how to create that “we’re buddies” feeling in my words.

But many people don’t – or maybe they just aren’t aware they’re firing away and leaving people feeling like they’ve been punched in the gut.

Here are a few examples, and I’m sure you’ll see how blunt these snippets come off to you as a reader. You’ve probably received “friendly requests” just like these yourself:

  • “Call me today at 1pm.” (Is that an order?)
  • “I want this project to begin immediately.” (Yes, sir!)
  • “Rearrange your schedule.” (Um, can I get a please, at least?)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with these requests, and they were written by really great people who had the best intentions in mind. They’re just straightforward, no-fluff sentences typed out by busy people. Nothing more.

But invariably, they come off bossy. Pushy. Demanding.

And if one of these sentences landed in your inbox, you’d probably immediately feel a touch defensive. You wouldn’t much feel like rearranging your schedule or hopping right to it. In fact, you might even deliberately reply that you can’t take the call or that you’re schedule’s booked until Friday.

Uh huh. I know you’re nodding.

Imagine how much better these “requests” would sound with a bit of friendliness tossed in to smooth out that straightforward tone:

  • “Would you be able to call me today at 1pm?” (Certainly. Which number should I call?)
  • “Would it be possible to start right away?” (Absolutely. We’ve already set the project in motion.)
  • “I know you’re busy and probably have your day booked, but would you be able to squeeze us in?” (I think so. Let me look at my schedule and get back to you.)

It didn’t take much to rephrase these sentences and write them with conscious attention to tone.

That’s the key to good communication: conscious attention.

When you write, think about how your tone might come off to the reader, a person who actually has no idea of your current mood. Remember the recipient can’t see you’re all laid back and casual, or that you’re feeling happy and bright. You feel good, sure, and you unconsciously assume everyone in the world knows it – but they don’t.

They can’t.

Not unless you tell them. Since they can’t see you or hear you, they have to guess at your mood and implied tone. And unless you want to inadvertently create a tense mood, you’d better pay attention to your written voice and tone.

Each and every time you write.

Here are a few fast tips to turn any straightforward sentence and harsh-sounding email into a friendly request – and if you consciously apply these tips to your written communication for a week, you’ll bask in the glorious results of happy dialogue with each person you write to, every single time:

  • Ask, don’t tell. Turn every straightforward sentence into a question. Using “would you…?” for any request that requires an action response heightens compliance immensely. In fact, parenting experts frequently suggest using “would you…?” to create helpful family harmony with rebellious, wilful or stubborn children.
  • Use emoticons. I don’t give a damn whether you feel they’re unprofessional or not. Erring on the side of caution and tossing in a smiley is far safer than taking a risk your “professionalism” properly carries a friendly tone. (Because in most cases, you’d be wrong.)
  • Use exclamation marks. Don’t overdo it and come off like some excited Valley Girl squeezing all over, but use exclamation marks here and there to stress that you’re feeling upbeat. “I had a great week!” looks a lot better than a flat “I had a great week.”
  • Read emails aloud – with a smile. Before you hit send, get your mood on. Put a smile on your face (a big one), sit straighter and read your email out loud with your intended tone in mind so you can literally hear your own voice, tone and inflections. A sentence sounds flat? Punch it up fast with a 🙂 or a !
  • Use humour. Laugh at yourself. “This email probably sounds like bullets from a machine gun, but it’s just because I’m actually racing around like a chicken this week – hope nobody decides they want roast for supper!”
  • Write a disclaimer. It sounds silly, but sometimes, starting your email off with a quick disclaimer sets the tone of conversation for greatness. “It’s 6am and I haven’t had enough coffee yet. So just in case it doesn’t come through, I’m writing this with a smile on my face and feeling great.” Then fire away.

And if you really aren’t that great with written communication and know that your writing skills fall a little short, do everyone a favour: use the phone. Send an email that says, “I’m not used to writing and I want to make sure my tone comes across properly. Would we be able to set up a call?” No harm in that, and you’ll probably have a great conversation.

Oh, and just in case you’ve suffered a few bullets lately and you’re feeling a little defensive from some straightforward communication, here’s an idea:

Copy the link to this article, paste it into an email, and write, “Wow, what a great article! I had the same situation happen to me this week. Have you ever had this happen? I’m forwarding it to everyone I know!”

Send it to the person who really needs a brush-up refresher on how to write emails with a friendly tone.

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. Ever since I started doing email-therapy/consulting I feel like I’ve taken a crash course in email etiquette. It’s tough finding a balance between adequate explanation and eloquent brevity… but taking a bit of extra time to make sure my tone is right really works wonders.

    Since I use email for sales AND the actual delivery of a service itself, this stuff is important. Emoticons are invaluable – even though I think they’re naff, they have the ability to change tone faster than anything else.

    Also, I’ve learned that sarcasm never works via text. It’s just totally incompatible… so the only way you can get away with it is to do something blatant like:

    Gee James, this post is totally irrelevant and reading it was a waste of my time *SARCASM*

    Also, the two sentence email rule is kinda lame. I’d be interested to know if people disagree… but I find receiving two-sentence responses always leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

    • Hmmm… so what about one sentence emails that ask a question? 😉

    • It’s VERY easy to get dry wit, sarcasm and smirking snark all wrong – and when you take two people who love to spar using those traits in real life… well that’s a train wreck to hell, isn’t it!

      I like one of your catchphrases, Peter; “Everyone has positive intentions.” Comes in handy when someone fires me a, “Clear your schedule. We’ll be expecting your call at 1pm.” (*blink* pardon? No. Really. Pardon?) If you remember that this person has positive intention, you can literally imagine them firing off that fast email with a smile – which changes the whole tone.

      Those two-sentence replies in the name of productivity? Sorry. I dislike them very much and consider them a bit rude. (Two words? Even worse. Unless it has an emoticon! :P)

  2. And while you are at it: on your iPhone, change the standard e-mail footer from the advertising “sent using my iPhone” to something like “This mail is very short and contains some errors since I wrote it on my teensy weensy phone instead of a real keyboard.” or something like that, so people know why you wrote such a short mail.

  3. Luckily for me this has never been a problem. Perhaps because I always add a smile emoticon after my signature part of the email.

    I guess if there is any resentment about my alleged tone in the post, it end right when they see the yellow smilie looking back at them.

    • If there’s a bad impression being created, it’ll happen in the first few sentences. By the time any reader makes it to the signature… damage is done.

      But it seems like you have happy tone and that it’s working out for you!

  4. I think email communication is a lesson everyone needs to learn, regardless of whether they’re in business for themselves or not. It’s probably more important for those of us in business, however it’s a skill that everyone needs.

    Also, emails need to be easy to read. I can’t stand the one’s I get that are written in leet speak, with the numbers and shortened words that you have to decipher to understand.

  5. James, you flick-wringed belly scomping nitureflugger! 🙂

  6. My father who had an acuity and astuteness with words that constantly amazed me, always said:

    “if you must put it in writing, before sending, read it out loud as though it has just been sent to you.” Good advice methinks.

    Timely post. Thanks.

    • It is good advice… but the problem is that we know our mood and tone, so we add that inflection to the text naturally and assume others hear it. When they may not.

      Try, “Honey, please!”

      How many ways can you make that sound? And what would your recipient receive? 🙂

  7. It usually feels risky to use emoticons with people I don’t know particularly well from before; because like you said, I fear that it might come out as unprofessional (and SMS-ish). But when I see someone sending emoticons to me first, it immediately sets the tone for future communication and I think ‘what a relief!’ before adding a 🙂 in my reply without stressing over it. As long as they’re not all over the place and carefully placed where they’re needed, emoticons can be quite effective.

    Good post. Simple psychology and friendlyness is all there is to it!

    • Nah, I’m all about taking the first step and showing I’m loose and casual enough to use emoticons and still be cool. Part of my charm 😛

      Be bold! Use the smilies!

  8. James, love all the examples. And you seemed to bring smiles and smart remarks to start off this Monday morning.

    I’m now off to add “an extra dose of friendly. I learned the fine art of diplomacy and gift-wrapping. I figured out how to create that “we’re buddies” feeling in my words.”

    I remember when I was teaching, a kid brought in a note from his parent: “pain in neck.”
    That was supposed to be the child’s excuse for missing school the previous day–but if I didn’t have a good relationship with the parent, I might have thought it was something else. 🙂 Thought that was the classic.

    the morning smiles

  9. And sometimes it is just a good idea to pick up the phone-at least that way, the person gets audio clues. I agree email is a great tool when you need things in writing, but it shouldn’t replace actually talking to one another.

    It used to drive me nuts in my Corporate days when someone right outside my office or over the cubicle wall sent me an email for a simple question. Hello…I’m sitting right here.

    Well-crafted emails are a fabulous tool. As someone who has had my share of that’s not what I meant emails, I appreciate the reminder of how important it is to strike the right tone. Thanks, James.

    • I have a couple of people with whom I much prefer phone over IM. The clarity of communication is way better, mostly because we use lots of eyerolling tones as jokes in IM… which don’t always come across well.

      I like using actions, too – that makes it real clear. “Did you see that website? *wince*”

  10. *Cowers*. Again.

  11. Karen Nemiah says:

    Great post. SO true whether you are in a paid environment or a volunteer one. I spread your words far and wide, including to the college career offices I work with.

  12. James, you are so right! I once had an email exchange with a colleague and we each read the tone of each other’s emails wrong. Emoticons can go a long way towards creating the context you want for your words. I do a lot of reading before sending email – and I’ve also recently enabled the ‘undo send’ feature in Gmail, just in case I think of something after I hit that button.

    • You know… I’m not sure the Undo Send actually works that well. I have that myself for those “OHNOZ!” moments, but I’m … wondering.

  13. “The meaning of communication is the response you get.”

    Thank You for this…

    “Use emoticons.”

    Forever I struggled with this and one too many times of people not “feeling” what I meant for them to, and out of my desire to live the belief of “The meaning of communication is the response you get,” lead to me using emoticons to insure my plain naked text landed on the other person how I meant it to.

    I’ve had to learn the hard way that the law of communication is to NOT BE MISUNDERSTOOD. Make everything crystal clear. And if stupid smiley faces need to be inserted or winks to guarantee someone doesn’t see that you’re joking, so be it.

    Thank you James for reinforcing this for me! I greatly appreciate it.

  14. I try to keep my emails as friendly as possible because it is so easy to create misunderstandings in emails. I remember I was working with a client last year. I thought we were getting along very well. We always laughed on the phone and exchanged emails fine. Then one morning I logged on and she had sent me an email saying “I looked over the web design you sent me and I want these 5 items addressed immediately”. I thought WOW…where did that harsh tone come from. I felt like I was in grade 5 and the teacher had just scolded my school work. LOL

  15. If I would have read this post when I was still teaching I swear I would have thought my boss put you up to writing it about me!! Every email I got from a parent basically felt like an attic 🙁 which is why I would take multiple days to get back to them, so I could write a thoughtful email – but I bet it always sounded like an attack back anyway – and the problem came in that we were supposed to return all email communication within 24 hours (so not a reality for a quality response due to the volume of emails in addition to all the other daily expectations). But in the end, I couldn’t not use !! and 🙂 because that’s just how I have always typed. Great post!!! 🙂

  16. I had a mini-fallout with one of my best friends via email over the weekend, all because he read my message quickly and failed to see my 😉 at the end of a sentence. I’ve been saying for weeks that body language and tone is important and you just totally proved me right. Thanks for that. 😉 (We made up pretty quickly so in case the written word fails to get it across, I’m being a little tongue in cheek with that thanks. ;))

    Seriously though, reading this reminded me of the time my sister in law complained about her step mother being curt in email replies. It was only when I received one from her that I could understand why. No polite greeting or sugar coating, just instructions and questions. It was enough to make even the most saintly curt.

    Enjoyed this very muchly. Thank you. 🙂

  17. I try to avoid emoticons in e-mails – if I can’t get a proper tone across without a smiley, I rewrite the mail until it needs to smiley.

    Thats simple because smileys are overlooked easily, and the are being used too much to spiff up a badly written mail. People are used to seeing smileys everywhere and don’t really notice them any more sometimes. Usually those times when you needed them.

  18. Hi James,

    Great list!

    Like you mentioned, I’ve begun migrating back to the phone and meeting in person. If I’ve got something difficult to say to a friend or a client, I do it live. That route makes me feel more empowered and the other person more cared about and increases the odds of a civil outcome.

    Thanks! G.

  19. Hi James, I see this all the time. Of course there’s a balance between being super productive and being rude, but to my mind the biggest offence is not being clear.

    How many times have you recieved an email saying “Are you free to meet next week?” Instead of “I’d really like to meet with you next week. I’m currently free Monday PM, Wednesday all day and Thursday PM. Are any of these slots convenient with you?”.

    This negates a whole load of email traffic!

    I really like your attempt to make the post viral !!! 😉


    • The email that inspired this post went exactly like this:

      “Rearrange your schedule. Call at 1pm.”

      *ahem* S’cuse me?

      I pushed off the call to MY choice of hours and schedule… and when I did get on the line with the three people, I realized they were great, friendly, vivacious and VERY thankful to speak with me. The curt tone? Completely unintentional. They had no clue it sounded like a General’s order.

  20. Great article! However, the only issue I have with asking questions instead of statements is that sometimes, it comes off too “soft.” It’s sometimes hard to strike a balance. But that’s where word choice comes in. (That’s a whole other article!)

    A few months ago, I wrote an article about the importance of tone in writing – looks like we’re on the same page:

  21. Patrick Vuleta says:

    I tend to be with Sam above on smileys. Sometimes I get wary of them as an email technique.

    They’re fine occasionally at the end of a single sentence, but by themselves they won’t negate tone.

  22. haha wow man this was a great post. I found your blog super randomly, had no idea you were even featured in newsweek, the washington post, etc. That’s some dope ass credibility right there son!

    And very true people can’t tell your sarcasm online, and if they get offended then they’re more than welcome to leave you know. That’s not the audience you want anyways. keep on doing what you do brotha. Great site by the way as far as your design goes. I just started blogging about a month ago (learned how to build a website about 3 months ago) and let me tell you it’s a journey I’m excited about everyday to take on.

    here’s a digital beer for being so sickk pen man



  23. I include smileys in all my e-mails, as well as most of my comments that I leave on other people’s websites. The world needs more smileys 🙂

  24. Excellent piece – I work as the Tech Director in a school district and also blog online – tone has to be very obvious in writing and I caution people here about that constantly. You have to be almost conversational as assume the other party is going to take it bad. People read it different than they hear it. I worked with one manager today who totally misread someone’s email and they eassumed that person was on the warpath. The writer wasn’t at all. On that note, as online readers we also have to try to assume a positive note and let our own hot headed responses cool off before firing right back. 😉

    Thats the emoticon mentioned.

  25. I love your advice with one exception; I would rather work my butt off writing an articulate email than admit to a prospective client that my writing skills are deficient and prefer to use the phone.


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