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Email etiquette: why virtual body language matters

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Writing the same way you speak is becoming increasingly common. Photo: Getty

Even when we’re sitting next to someone in the office, many of us still rely on technology to communicate, whether it’s email, Slack, or social media. And with a growing number of people working remotely, the way we interact with each other virtually is more important than ever.

You can tell quite a lot from the way someone writes in a message or email. Humour, aggression, and more can be a big giveaway. We might not be speaking to them in person, but we can still read their digital body language — although it can be more difficult.

“The increasing amount of digital communication that we have at our fingertips may mean we are more inclined to contact our friends by a simple written message on WhatsApp or Facebook message rather than speaking to them on the phone,” Alan Price, HR expert and operations director at Peninsula Group, told Yahoo Finance UK.

“We might also include a few emoji’s to emphasise our feelings to the recipient. That’s fine when making arrangements to meet at the pub at the weekend, but is it appropriate when sending over an excel spreadsheet or sales report to a colleague?”

Sometimes, an emoji is harmless in a work email or message, but it can depend on the context. For many people, a smiling emoji at the end of critical email is extremely passive aggressive — and is likely to infuriate the receiver.

Writing the same way you speak is becoming increasingly common as people message friends and family on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and other apps. This can make it easier to read someone’s mood — what you see is what you get.

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Shorter, more abrupt text — particularly over email — usually indicates someone is unhappy or angry, unless you know for a fact that’s the person’s normal style. This isn’t the same as messaging over Slack or other instant messaging apps, however, where we’re more likely to keep our messages short and succinct.

However, the use of abbreviations can seem self-centred to some. A quick “tks” may seem harmless, but it often comes from the colleague or boss who is rushed and overworked — and thus can come off as far too important to add a few extra letters to a word.

Even the use of full stops in messages can indicate anger or dissatisfaction. It may seem far-fetched, but a 2015 study found that putting a full stop at the end of a sentence while texting makes you seem insincere.

This is because punctuation influences the perceived meaning of text messages when important social and contextual cues are missing, according to the study’s research leader Celia Klin. “Texting is lacking many of the social cues used in actual face-to-face conversations. When speaking, people easily convey social and emotional information with eye gaze, facial expressions, tone of voice, pauses, and so on,” Klin said.

Texters rely on signals they have available to them. Photo: Getty

“People obviously can't use these mechanisms when they are texting. Thus, it makes sense that texters rely on what they have available to them — emoticons, deliberate misspellings that mimic speech sounds, and, according to our data, punctuation.”

Social habits can easily spill over into work communication but it’s up to employers to set out their expectations on maintaining professionalism on email etiquette, according to Price. It can pay to be cautious.

“Many employers deploy standard email signatures to remove the personal touch and probably for good reason. Jokey sign offs, risqué banter, and kisses should be avoided in case they are not received well by the reader,” he said.

“All it takes is for one employee to consider the email to be offensive and if the content is connected to the reader’s gender, for example, you’ve got the makings of a harassment claim where employers would have to defend themselves, and the actions of its employee, at employment tribunal.”

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Whether we formally sign off an email or not also depends on whether we’re talking to a colleague or a client.

“‘Cheers’ may be acceptable when thanking a team member for sending a document over but not when replying to a client or customer, when something more business-like is likely to be expected,” Price said.

“In addition, as a manager, do you want to be accused of favouritism if you use a smiley face emoji to one team member on the end of the email but not another? Employers can address these issues in a wider email usage policy; it’s best to set the stall out from the beginning rather than having to try to pull the reins back in when something goes wrong.”