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Other email material by Kaitlin Duck Sherwood:

A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email

Finding Email Addresses

Why I Don't Like Electronic Greeting Cards

Email Bibliography

Humorous looks at email:

The Dark Side of Web Publishing

Email vs. Letters

Hyphenate or not -- Email or E-mail?

Chapter 8 - Convey Emotional Tone

Excerpted from Overcome Email Overload with Eudora 5
Copyright © 2001 Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

You have probably already seen how destructive a flame war--a series of angry email messages--can be. An organization can take hours to clean up after even a minor battle. Besides generating an enormous number of messages, flame wars are emotionally draining. Reducing your participation in flame wars is a very good way to improve your email productivity.

Why is it so much easier to make someone mad with an email message than in a face-to-face conversation? Because text lacks not only vocal inflection but also body language. There is no twinkling of the eyes to say you are kidding, no slapping the back of your hand to show urgency or frustration, no slouching or slumping to display discouragement. Unfortunately, without these cues, it is easy for your correspondents to misinterpret your underlying emotion.

In addition, you can't see your correspondents' mood. In a face-to-face talk, if you see that someone is having a really bad day, you will adjust your message appropriately. You won't tell a joke to someone who you can see is grieving.

Finally, email doesn't have a built-in "cooling off" period. The combatants can send responses immediately--they don't have to wait until they see the other person or until the postal carrier comes to pick up a letter. Email arguments thus can escalate very rapidly.

Paid and Sponsored versions of Eudora 5 have a feature called "Mood Watch" which is designed to let you know when a message is offensive, but there are a lot of messages that might be offensive that it won't catch. While you should definitely pay attention if Eudora marks an outgoing message with chili peppers, don't feel safe Eudora doesn't mark it.

Even if you don't make someone angry, not conveying your emotional tone well can lead to significant misunderstandings. It is important to be able to express urgency and uncertainty in messages.

Fortunately, there are a number of conventions that you can use to help express your emotional tone. These include representations of body language and vocal inflection, as well as markers for urgency and uncertainty. This chapter discusses these techniques.

Use Stand-ins for Gestures and Facial Expression

You've probably already seen emoticons --textual pictures of faces--in electronic mail messages. By far, the most common three are

:-) smiley , which means, "I'm happy"

;-) winky , which means, "I'm kidding"

:-( frowny , which means, "I'm sad or disappointed"

While there are numerous others from ill ( %^P ) to angry ( >:-< ) to astonished ( :-o ), these are much less common and so more open to misinterpretation.

    Tip: People also sometimes use <grin> or <g> to show a smile.

    Tip: Recognize that emoticons won't have much meaning to people whose email goes through a text-to-speech processor: imagine a computer reading a"winky" emoticon: "semi-colon dash close parenthesis..." Some text-to-speech processors leave out punctuation completely! If you think your correspondent might be using a text-to-speech processor, take the extra time to be explicit about your emotions.

Some people say that emoticons should never ever be used in business communications. I feel that it depends upon what type of communication it is. If you are wisecracking to your good friend in the office across from you, it is probably appropriate. If it is the vice-president addressing everyone in the division, it is likely to be less appropriate. If it is a message to the CEO of your favorite foreign client, it is probably not a good idea:

Subject: negotiations

Dear Watanabe-san:


I look forward to our meeting on Tuesday, 19 February, 2038.


I feel confident that we can find solutions to all the outstanding issues concerning the merger of our two enterprises. :-)



Patricia Nguyen

President and CEO, Floss Recycling Incorporated


Think of it this way: if it is a solemn enough message that it would be impolite to laugh if you said it in person, you shouldn't use a smiley face in email. If you might laugh in person, it's reasonable to convey that in email.

Express Uncertainty

Paper documents are usually designed to be persuasive. Authors usually avoid expressing any doubt so the audience will take their side of an issue. Email messages, on the other hand, are usually collaborative : people normally use email to find a consensus. This difference in purpose means that it is much more important to express your certainty level in email than in paper documents.

For example, suppose that the vice-president asked you how long it will take to finish a project. If you sound too certain, the vice-president might commit the entire division to an unreasonably early goal. Such a misunderstanding can lead to flame wars or damage your career.

Unless you are very certain what people will do with information that you give them, you should try to show when you have doubts about your information.


Here are some typographical tricks you can use to show uncertainty.

You've probably already seen (?) to indicate uncertainty or (sp?) when someone isn't sure about the spelling of a word:

Subject: Re: CTO

>What's the name of the Chief Financial Officer?


Chris Olshefsky(sp?). She's been CFO for two (?) years.


I like to use a leading and trailing question mark when there is an entire phrase that is uncertain:

Subject: lunch meeting

I just had lunch with Chris Olszewski, who is the ?first female CFO? of Floss Recycling Technologies, Inc.


In this case, I want to show that I think there were no chief financial officers who were female before Chris got the job. Putting (?) after "first", "female", or "chief financial officer" could be misinterpreted. For example, if I put a question mark after "female", the reader might think that I wasn't sure if Chris was female or not!

Several dots can symbolize a pause. This can be an indication that the sender is either discouraged or uncertain:

Subject: Re: CFO

>What's the name of the Chief Financial Officer?


Her name... oh yeah, Chris Olszewski. I wish I were moving up as fast in the world as she is...


Short Utterances

While most people think that "um" and "uh" are mistakes to be avoided at all costs, they actually have a purpose in verbal conversations. In a conversation, listeners get uncomfortable if there is too much silence in a sentence. They don't know if the speaker is still composing his or her thoughts or if he or she has gone mentally missing. "Uh" and "um" alert the listener that the speaker is having trouble formulating speech, and it will take a moment for the sentence to resume.

Similarly, you can use "um" and uh" in your email to show that you're having difficulty answering the question:

Subject: Re: brochures supply

>How many boxes of brochures do we have left?


Um. Seventeen, as I recall.


Clearly, you could write out that you are unsure:

Subject: Re: brochure supply

>How many boxes of brochures do we have left?


I'm not exactly sure how many boxes there are, but I think there are about seventeen.


However, that is a lot more keystrokes than "um." You might find, as many people do, that typing a long explanatory phrase takes more time than you want to spend.

Express Urgency

You have probably heard this before, but it is worth repeating: use capital letters and exclamation marks very sparingly. The lack of emotional cues in email makes experienced email readers hypersensitive to any cues that they can find. Thus, capital letters will convey the message that you are shouting. Many email users wince when they receive email like this:




Furthermore, upper case is hard to read. Because of the uniform height of capital letters, it takes about 10%-14% more time to read something that is entirely in uppercase than it does to read something that is in mixed case.

    Tip: If you are such a poor typist that switching case is a burden for you, use all lower case instead of all upper case. It might convey the message that you're mumbling but is easier to read than all upper-case and doesn't seem as aggressive.

In Defense of Nonstandard Writing

I must warn you that there is a vocal segment that dislikes using nonstandard writing to express emotions. They argue that if Mark Twain could convey emotion without having to resort to such tricks, then we should not have to.

What they don't acknowledge is that there are big differences between Mark Twain's great novels and my electronic mail messages:

  • It is flattering for someone to tell me that I should be able to write as well as Mark Twain, but not reasonable. Twain was one of the very best of the very best English-language writers. Most people sending messages are not as skilled as he was.
  • Twain probably spent weeks on every chapter. I bet that he wrote, rewrote, thought, rewrote, went shopping, rewrote, went on vacation, rewrote, fixed his roof, rewrote, and rewrote some more. Twain didn't have to deal with scores of email messages every day, as many people now do.
  • Twain could spend hundreds of words to convey an emotional tone. Email is usually very brief, which gives the sender less chance to convey a tone accurately.
  • Books are usually written to unknown audiences, while email messages are usually to specific people--making email messages much more personal. If a male left-handed rabbit herder read a book that said nasty things about male left-handed rabbit herders, he probably wouldn't be nearly as insulted as if someone emailed him insults about male left-handed rabbit herders.

Besides, even Twain could not write to convey his tone unambiguously. When I read Tom Sawyer in high school, I didn't think it was funny. I naively accepted the outlandish situations.

It can be difficult to simultaneously convey emotions clearly and follow standard grammar rules. In the heat of the moment, one or the other is likely to suffer. While it is good to try for both, I feel that conveying emotions accurately is more important than following every grammar rule.

If You Think Someone Insulted You

You shouldn't respond angrily when you think you've been insulted. This is especially true if others are participating in the conversation. The sender might have been clumsy at expressing his or her emotion; you might have misunderstood. If you are quick to respond harshly, people might think that you have an uncontrollable temper, which usually does not lead to rapid career advancement.

If you get a piece of email that angers you, it's a good idea to take an hour to cool off. It's an even better idea to wait overnight. Re-read it later, and see if you can find a gentler interpretation. Ask a friend or colleague to look over your shoulder at the message and see if they can see another interpretation. If you decide that the message really is insulting, get a trusted person to read over your response before you send it. In a flame war, you're always better off looking like the more reasonable participant.

You'll be much better off if you send a request for clarification than an angry response:

Subject: Re: turtles running loose in hallway

Excuse me, I am slightly confused by your last message. I felt that my previous message (Subject: turtles running loose in hallway) was clear, worthwhile, and to the point.


If you meant to abuse me, could you please explain what it was that angered you? All that I could tell from your previous message was that you were angry, not why.


If you meant to abuse the owner of the turtles, you want rayman@flossrecycling.com, not me. I have never owned a turtle.


An even better way to respond to inflammatory email is by talking to the person face-to-face or by telephone. You will have many more emotional cues to help you figure out the person's intent.


Emotion and meaning are more prone to misinterpretation in email messages than in more traditional communications.

  • Wait before responding to a message that angers you. Have a trusted friend review any messages you wrote when you were angry.
  • Convey emotions with emoticons.
  • Capital letters and exclamation marks indicate urgency. Use them sparingly.
  • If changing case is difficult for you, use all lower case letters instead of all uppercase letters.
  • Use uncertainty markers to show how confident you are about what you say.

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Go back to Chapter 7 - Reduce Ambiguity
Go on to Chapter 9 - Make Messages Legible