Lost in Translation

English: email envelope

English: email envelope (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve all done it—sent an email or text that was misinterpreted by the reader. This usually happens when we are trying to be cute, funny, or sarcastic. If the recipient of the email/text doesn’t know us very well (and sometimes even if they do), they may not fully understand what we are trying to say. This can lead to confusion and in some cases can offend the other party.

As a writer, I like to think that I communicate more effectively through the written word, but that’s not always the case. I too have sent the misunderstood communication and had to do damage control to keep it from wreaking havoc with a client or coworker. Over the years, I’ve developed a few tricks to keep these instances to a minimum. They’re not foolproof, but they do help.

1. Always try to read an email/text/tweet twice before sending it. Reading it out loud can help. As you read, consider whether the reader can misinterpret what you wrote. If there is any doubt, rewrite. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

2. Wait a predetermined time before responding to sensitive issues. How many times have you fired off an angry email only to regret it later? Delaying your response gives you time to calm down and collect your thoughts. If the issue is not time sensitive, I wait 24 hours before responding. In that time, I usually realize I may have misunderstood what the other person was saying or I’ve come up with a way to respond that is appropriate.

3. It’s better to be clear than clever. I try to keep jokes and sarcasm to a minimum in my business communications. I do have a few clients I’ve known for many years. I am a little more relaxed in my communications with these folks, but I still read my emails twice before sending them out just to be sure. It’s more important for my clients understand what I’m saying than it is for them to see how funny or clever I am.

4. Ask a friend to read what you’ve written. In some extreme situations, it’s a good idea to get an outside opinion. I’ve been known to send some very sensitive communications to a friend to read and give feedback before sending it on to its final destination. This has saved me from an embarrassing mistake on more than one occasion.

5. Sometimes a phone call is the best way to go. As a writer, it pains me to say this, but there are times when an actual dialogue is needed to convey your message. If you find yourself struggling with how to word an email or text so that it conveys the correct tone or overall message, it may be time to pick up the phone instead. A five-minute phone call may save you from having a huge headache later.

The most important thing to remember is that tone doesn’t always translate in written communication. Take care in composing electronic messages so that you say what you mean and you mean what you say. A straightforward message is almost always the best way to go. Save the jokes and clever banter for face-to-face encounters.


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