The training program went so well that one of the participants e-mailed me gushing about how much she learned. So much that she wanted to get together for lunch to “pick my brain”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but said sure, give me a call.
I’m not a big let’s have lunch person. Due to the nature of our business, I’m often not in the office and when I am, I need the time to prepare for upcoming engagements. After accounting for traveling there, lunch time and traveling back, lunch frequently means taking a half day off. However, I didn’t want to turn her down and send the wrong message. She was respectful and told me she valued my time and because she was located an hour from me, she would pick a restaurant close to my office.
When her assistant emailed a meeting invite several weeks later, I accepted. A few days before our meeting, she cancelled. The assistant rescheduled and she cancelled again. I offered to schedule a call instead. She said she’d rather meet in person. Two months later, lunch was rescheduled again.
As the date approached, she emailed asking me to find a restaurant in an area about 40 minutes away from my office, which she said would be easier for her to get to that day. Annoyed that she apparently forgot she respected my time and unfamiliar with the neighborhood, I reached out to some colleagues for recommendations, but no one had any.
Trying to be cooperative, I suggested several alternative places that were closer to both of us. She emailed me back with another suggestion that required even more travel time for both of us.
My exact response: “Sure, though I think that’s probably further for both of us. Whatever works is fine. See you tomorrow.”
Yet when tomorrow came, I was greeted with this early morning email:
“Karen, maybe I have a misunderstanding. Aren’t we a client of yours? I am surprised about how difficult it is to arrange a simple lunch. This is not urgent or pressing. I was hoping to engage you for some services with my team. I don’t think that it’s going to work out at this point. We can let lunch go for now.”
Dumbfounded, I stared at the email, then read it again to make sure I was reading it correctly. Upset that she was upset, but irritated at her response, I called, got her voicemail and left an apology. Then I emailed her back saying:
“I profusely apologize and did not mean to make this difficult. I’m happy to meet you for lunch wherever you like. I was trying to be accommodating by finding something closer to both of us, but clearly sent the wrong message. “
She never responded. So what went wrong?
Emails, while quick and easy, have no tone so they can be easily misunderstood. When you talk to someone in person or over the phone, they see facial expressions, hear the inflection in your voice and sense emotional connections to topics. However, a seemingly innocent remark or off the cuff comment that might be funny in person could be completely misunderstood in an e-mail. I recall a client telling me she had worked endless hours on an important presentation only to have her boss suggest it was less than par. She was so upset, she didn’t sleep that night. As it turns out, he had sent her an email suggesting some changes on a certain slide, but she took it to mean he was unhappy with her work.
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found people only interpret the tone and mood of an email 50% of the time. That means you might be pleased, but the email recipient perceives you’re not. It’s these types of misinterpretations that lead to arguments, harm productivity and turn people against each other in the workplace.
Had my fan turned foe and I connected by phone to agree on a lunch place, perhaps our mix-up would have been avoided.
Yet, in today’s global workplace, phone conversations to schedule meetings are not always efficient. During our email exchange, I was in California. Time difference and schedules would have made it tough to connect and thanks to technology, scheduling lunch no longer requires a phone call.
Here are five tips to help you avoid unintended email snafus:
1. Don’t assume what someone else means. If you’re not sure, pick up the phone and call them.
2. Don’t bury the lead. For example, instead of saying: “The client wants the top of this presentation reworked to better reflect the message”, try a different approach. If you said, “You did a great job on this presentation, but the client wants us to work on tightening the very top.” This way the receiver hears “you did a great job” first.
3. Consider the relationship. If someone knows you well, they are more in tune with your communication style and less likely to take offense or misinterpret your words. If they don’t, it’s easier for your communication to be misread.
4. Consider the person. If you know someone well, you have a better understanding of their personality and what might upset them.
5. Re-read. Before hitting send, re-read the email to see if it’s laced with tone or mood that could be misconstrued.
In my case, perhaps the email recipient sensed I didn’t really want to have lunch even though I didn’t actually say that. Or, maybe she was dealing with other issues and simply took her bad mood out on me. Whatever the case, there is a common expression saying “it takes two to tango”. That means regardless of intent or excuse, we are both responsible for the outcome.