E-mail Breakdown: A Question of Tone

I received an unsolicited, honest-to-God message from a reader recently about an e-mail conversation he had with a co-worker. My reader said that he and the co-worker saw nothing wrong with the tone of the conversation but that their boss did. The boss, my reader told me, thought the tone turned rude during the end of the conversation.

This offers us a great opportunity to discuss tone, one of the trickiest and most subjective elements of writing. Tone can be undeniably clear (no one would characterize Patrick Henry’s Give me liberty or give me death as mild), but it is just as often up for debate. What one reader considers straightforward another reader might consider abrupt and, yes, rude.

And here we’re talking about tone in a specific sort of communication: office e-mail. More to the point, rapid-fire, utilitarian office e-mail—the kind of communication that, if someone is having a bad day or a deadline is looming or a writer doesn’t possess particularly deft phrasing, can be mistaken for rude when it’s not.

The portion of my reader’s conversation that the boss considered to be rude hinged on that classic pressure point of office communication: the I’ve already asked for the file but haven’t yet received it and now I’m asking for it again scenario. This might be the riskiest of intraoffice exchanges. You really need that file, but you know your co-worker is busy and he might have gotten tied up by something more important, but—dang!—you really need that file. Come on too strong and you’ve just alienated the source of that precious file. Play it too soft and you might end up waiting even longer. Let’s take a look at the interaction and then discuss*:

[This comes at the end of a run-of-the-mill e-mail thread in which Co-worker A asks Co-worker B, my reader, for a file. The ask has been made, and Co-worker B is taking a while to satisfy the request.]
CO-WORKER A: So … Am I going to be able to get the file from you?
CO-WORKER B: Yes, BUT – You’ll have to wait your turn because long-term presentations don’t go in front of daily projects and there are more urgent requests at the moment that must be handled first. As soon as the daily projects have been completed then I will be happy to get you all that you have requested.
CO-WORKER B (second reply): ETA for file 2 PM

*Some nonessential elements of the conversation have been changed to protect the players.

The Writing Guide’s verdict, based on the text alone: an understandably imperfect exchange, but not rude. The conversation is laced with the everyday tension common to a multitasking, deadline-drenched office environment. And it lacks a few rhetorical touches that could soften the tone and increase the politeness. But it does not rise to the level of rudeness.

Co-worker A, who resides in that classic tough spot that I described above, earns points for taking a straightforward tack to his question. If he were to employ exclamation points or beleabor his point about needing the file, he could wade into the waters of rudeness. Instead, he simply asks if he’ll be able to get the file. CWA could be accused of sounding a bit passive-aggressive by using the ellipsis and framing what’s really a statement (I want the file) as a question, but I’m going to let that slide and chalk it up to deadline pressure.

Where CWA went slightly astray was in neglecting to insert the commonly used Hey, I understand you’re really busy, but statement. I’ve always found that employing a bit of empathy in such situations innoculates you from sounding like a pest. But, again: deadline, baby. Deadline.

CWB, on the other hand, does a good job of offering a simple explanation of why there’s been a delay—another project has priority—and assuring CWA that all will be completed once the more important project has been finished. CWB earns extra points by following up with an ETA. That’s classic management of expectations.

My first, slight criticism of CWB’s response concerns the all-caps BUT. That can come across as a rhetorical hand in the face. My second focuses on the follow-up phrase you’ll have to wait your turn, which a sensitive reader could take to be condescending. A gentler opening might have been, Yes, it’s just that long-term presentations don’t go in front … .

But these are minor quibbles, formulated from a quiet corner of the Los Feliz branch of the L.A. Public Library. Go back to my magazine days and you’ll unearth all sorts of stripped-down interrogative and directive e-mails written during a frantic workday that could be taken as rude in the wrong context.

Thanks to my reader for forwarding the case study! I hope it’s the first of many.

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