Are You Witty in E-mail? You Might Be the Only One Who Thinks So

Last Updated Aug 17, 2009 2:06 PM EDT

I like to think of myself as reasonably humorous, especially when it comes to the written word. My e-mail correspondence with friends is often witty and clever, and we enjoy giving each other a good electronic ribbing almost as much as an in-person joshing.

But, as Harvard's David Silverman reminds me, humor -- or lack thereof -- is often in the eye of the beholder. What you might consider a witty missive might befuddle (or, worse, outrage) the recipient.

Silverman wrote about a funny e-mail exchange that fell flat. He thought he was being amusing, while his friend thought he was just confused. No harm, no foul, because the correspondence was with a buddy. But what, he wonders, would it have been like if it he'd e-mailed a work acquaintance or colleague? There are fewer free passes in that arena.

Silverman points out one key fact that we often miss in our e-world: Tone of voice doesn't carry through a keyboard. What you think is gently funny may be read as surliness or sarcasm. Without verbal or physical context, you might actually insult the person you were hoping to engage with your clever banter.

In business communication, there should be no room for disagreement about what you're saying (or meant to say), says Silverman, and I agree. So remember to save the sillies for your friends who'll forgive your trespasses.

(image by Mel B. via Flickr, CC 2.0)

  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for and writes regularly for and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.