Writing a email is like a declaration of war 11


Have you noticed, people often don鈥檛 interpret you email messages the way you meant it? This often leads to the demise of friendships and healthy business relationships. Take Facebook (or Twitter, MXIT, Whatsapp, BBM, etc.) as an example. Someone may send thousands of messages over a long period of time, and then, one day, they send just one, JUST ONE message that people interpret negatively, then all the good work of so many previous messages is down the drain. We all know of examples where such slip of the tongue (or finger) ruined the reputation of otherwise good people.

Point is, this is often unfair and we should do something about it. Sometimes people would put an icon ( 馃檪 ) after a statement, or LOL, to show that it is just a joke. To me this is a bit awkward; it often spoils the joke or whatever other message the writer had in mind.

There are, I believe, three main reasons why people misinterpret electronic messages:

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 The receiver can鈥檛 see the sender, so she or he can鈥檛 see the person鈥檚 body language, and body language is an important part of the message.

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 The sender can鈥檛 explain his or her message, seeing that we try to write economically, so the message is not clear.

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 The receiver or receivers of the message misuse it to get at the sender, be it for political, financial, personal or whatever other reason.

I don鈥檛 think we are ready for this new manner of communicating yet. What we need is some education and, perhaps, a protocol according to which we should communicate electronically. Here are some suggestions on what such a protocol should include:

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 Don鈥檛 judge too quickly. If a message sounds negative or hostile, ask and give the sender a chance to explain.

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 Put yourself in the shoes of the receiver and think how you would interpret and react to your message, then rephrase it if necessary before you send it.

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 Add some feeling to your messages, for example by adding something like 鈥渙n a lighter note鈥 or 鈥渏ust kidding鈥 after your statement, or the 馃檪 icon, or LOL, even though I don鈥檛 like using them.

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 Be prepared to change your initial interpretation of a message if the sender explains differently.

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 Always wait at least a day before you respond to a message that you perceive as negative, hostile or insulting.

聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 Avoid irony, antithesis and sarcasm 鈥 they don鈥檛 work in cyber space.

Hannes Nel, MD Mentornet

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About Hannes Nel

CEO and owner of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd. Academic background: B. Mil.; BA Honnours; MBL; D. Com; D. Phil Published 10 books with two more in the pipeline.


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11 thoughts on “Writing a email is like a declaration of war

  • Amanda Kulati

    How true is that? Diversity intelligence or none thereof聽also plays a role in how we interpret emails. I almost have to remind myself- ‘no one is out to get you so …( this helps me to understand/consider the sender before my interpretation). Pat and all the other colleagues are right- it often sounds lighter and less negative the second time (after a sleep or after a few minutes of mental deliberation…)

  • Tass Schwab

    A sound knowledge of Netiquette is needed! And I have also noticed that some people use sms language in emails as well… stick to school rules regarding how to write a letter because in fact an email is this is essence!聽

  • Danie van Heerden

    Dag se Hannes Nel

    I like what you say and yet the same applies to telephonic conversation not so??

    The reason people put “LOL” after an sentence is just that indicating that NO PUN was intended!

    waiting a day to answer a message wil not work because “outoppies”like me forget what they wanted to say lolol

    Have a good day

    God bless

  • Ian Webster

    Agreed wholeheartedly, Hannes, thanks.
    We have to take responsibility for our message all the way to it’s receipt and interpretation. Communication (in any form) is not about sending messages; it is about ensuring that they are correctly received, interpreted and responded to.
    The recipient takes our message at face value. They don’t ask themselves, “I wonder if I misunderstood.” If I don’t take responsibility for my communication, no one else will.

  • Celeste Maxime Lackay

    Absolutely agree with you Hannes.

    But then there are those who send e-mails just before closing in the afternoon / weekend precisely because they want you to know who’s boss.聽“You will NOT….”聽 This just because they want to make a point.

    You made a point…;-)聽