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Why Humor and Emails Don't Mix

When you send an email to your employees or colleagues, do you think that humor might help a tough message go down a little easier? Do you try to include a few punch lines, thinking you're breaking up the monotony of their day?

If the answer is yes, then you need to stop, according to business writing teacher and author David Silverman.

In his Harvard Business blog post "That Funny Email? No One's Laughing," Silverman includes a cringe-inducing email exchange between a friend and him, in which they kept missing the other's attempts at humor. As the exchange devolved into explanations like "as was I also trying to be funny in a wry sardonic way," Silverman made clear his point that wit is best saved for face-to-face and telephone interactions.

A few other pieces of advice from Silverman about email tone:

  • 1. Lose the smiley face: Yes, the ":-)" may help a reader see you're making a light remark or you mean an admonition to be taken in a helpful, non-angry tone. However, use the emoticon and you're also risking, as Silverman says, "appear[ing] sophomoric -- or even doubly insulting."
  • 2. Say what you mean: "In business, anything not explicitly written does not exist," says Silverman, explaining that there should be no room for disagreement about what your email means. This rule also applies to sarcasm in emails. If you send out a missive thanking people for not cleaning up after themselves in the break room, most will take the hint, but a few will think, "Well, she never asked me to clean" and therefore, they won't.
  • 3. Don't expect your tone to carry through the keyboard: While those who know you well might "hear" your voice while reading your words, most people won't. Therefore, always re-read what you wrote before hitting send, looking out for phrases that could appear too blunt or be misconstrued.
Though unrelated to tone, I'll end this post with my favorite email tip: add your attachment before you compose the message, thereby avoiding one of those embarrassing "forgot the attachment, here it is" follow ups. Any email tips you'd like to share?

Image courtesy of Flickr user cesarastudillo, CC 2.0

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