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Can’t Be Done in Email

The other day my web designer, Diane Varner, uploaded new information about upcoming classes to my website; then she emailed me to tell me she had finished. But when I looked at the page, I saw that the classes and dates she had posted were from 2006. Yikes!

I phoned Diane right away to ask her to fix the problem. Here is part of our telephone conversation:

Lynn: Diane, somehow the wrong information got uploaded, something from last year. Please check it out. [I pause for Diane to look at the web page on her computer in California; then I continue.] Do you see? The classes listed are all from last year!

Diane: Is that a problem?

Lynn, then Diane burst into laughter.

This brief exchange illustrates what cannot be done successfully in email. What created a lovely, humorous moment were our warm relationship, the slightly whimsical tone in Diane’s voice, and perfect timing.

If I had emailed Diane about the 2006 classes uploaded in error and she had replied in email “Is that a problem?” I would have wondered:

  • Why doesn’t she understand what I am talking about?
  • Am I misunderstanding her?
  • Is she joking or being sarcastic?

Some email writers try to succeed with remarks like “Is that a problem?” using smiley faces and other emoticons. But emoticons are themselves subject to misinterpretation.

The safest way to proceed in email is straightforwardly–without humor, sarcasm, or irony. You can still enjoy a good laugh in a spoken exchange.

For more on email misinterpretation, read this entry: “Email and Your Ego.”

Now that I have publicly discussed Diane’s mistake, let me refer you to her stunning photo blog and to a gorgeous website she is designing as a volunteer for the Global Aids Interfaith Alliance.

Diane is one admirable human being–with a fine sense of humor.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

One comment on “Can’t Be Done in Email”

  • Lynn, thank you for making me laugh again! I could not have pulled this off with many but your quick wit and “ease with life” understood my humor immediately. Thank you for the kind comments as well. You’re right…. emails and the written word never quite fully express emotions, especially when they are one of gratefulness and gratitude…and that I am!

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