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Your Subject Sets the Mood of the Message

When you think about using a positive tone in your emails, consider that the tone starts with the subject line. Your subject sets the mood for your message.

Compare the moods expressed in each of these paired subjects:

  • New Employee Announcement
  • Welcome Juanita Gomez to Property!
  • Meeting Follow-Up
  • Follow-Up on Our Productive Meeting
  • Confirming Reservation 68924
  • Welcome to the Cambridge Inn

In each pair the second subject communicates more positively and sets the tone for the rest of the message.

When you receive an email with a subject that communicates negatively, in your reply feel free to change the subject to change the tone, as these examples do:

  • Schedule Confusion
  • Re: Schedule Clarification
  • Problems With the Council Budget
  • Re: Thank You for the Budget Feedback

When you make a change like those above, the thread that continues has a positive focus rather than a focus on confusion and problems. 

You can also change the subject to express enthusiasm. To my delight, someone changed the subject when she replied to me recently. My original subject was:

  • Requesting Your Review of "Business Writing With Heart"

She changed the subject when she replied after reading the proof copy of the book: 

  • What a book!

You can communicate enthusiasm just by adding a word or phrase to the original subject when you reply:

  • Program Updates
  • Re: Program Updates–Outstanding!
  • Site Visit Report
  • Re: Site Visit Report–Great work!

The positive tone of your messages can help you solve problems, motivate employees, sell ideas, and build excellent work relationships. Remember to set the tone from the beginning, with a subject that communicates positively.

You can learn more about communicating positively in my new book, Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. Get the first chapter free here.

I welcome your thoughts on warming up the tone in emails.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

7 comments on “Your Subject Sets the Mood of the Message”

  • Hi Lynn, I totally agree with your thoughts on subject lines. I have often wondered, though, why your emails to me always just include the same “Business Writing” in the subject line every time. I’m sure you would agree, not very effective!

  • Thanks for your good point. Yes, “Business Writing” is boring as a subject message after message. Unfortunately, you are receiving an automatic email telling you that the “Business Writing” blog has a new post. It’s not going to change. Sorry!


  • Hi Lynn,
    Thank you very much for always offering useful tips. I enjoy your blog and newsletters very much.
    I agree that positive subject lines would have a good impact on communication. Some of our business partners, however, request that original subject lines of their email messages should not be changed. In this case, I will not change the subject lines.
    By the way, is it acceptable to put a different subject line after “Re:,” which indicates that it is a reply to a message? I would appreciate your advice.

  • I had never thought of this before and I think it is a great idea. It is a good way to break a negative pattern and move forward more constructively, as you note. I will be putting a note on my monitor to help me incorporate it into my work in the future.

    Roo’s comment reminds me of some of my co-workers who use sorts and other techniques in their inboxes where a change in title might result in interfering with their work techniques so I will consider that. However, I think as long as they aren’t paying clients, the change in tone could outweight such impacts, in my opinion.

  • I think Roo raises some good points. When you change the subject line in a reply, you undermine correspondents who are relying on filters that use the subject line to construct a threaded view of a conversation. And I think that changing what comes after “Re:” could seem a little sneaky to some recipients. Evaluate to whom you are writing, and then make your best choice.

  • Since the automatic threading of Outlook (I guess still the most popular email client besides GMail) is abysmal I rely on subject searches for finding related messages. I would therefore strongly advise against changes in the subject.
    (Although I really like the idea!)

  • Thank you, Roo, Jennifer, Jim, and Andreas for weighing in on this topic.

    Roo, thank you for your thoughtful comment and question. Yes, it’s important to accommodate your business partners’ needs. At the same time, having a thread with a subject such as “Schedule Confusion” spread throughout the organization is not good for morale or forward movement. Changing the subject does require balancing the pros and cons.

    Regarding your question about “Re,” good one! There is no rule about using “Re” while changing the subject as far as I know. As you noted, “Re” does indicate a reply, which the message is, even with a changed subject.

    Jennifer, I always appreciate learning your opinion. You and I are of like minds on this subject.

    Jim, evaluating and making your best choice are always good ideas–thanks.

    Andreas, maybe you will find a way to make this idea work for you. For example, rather than just replying, you could start a new thread with a new subject, which picks up on the earlier topic. I am glad you like the idea.


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