Business Pitfalls: The Trouble With E-Mail

It's Labor Day here in the U.S., and while we are not working that much today, we wanted to leave you, dear readers, with a brief post about business practices.

For better or for worse, the vast majority of business communication most of us do is via e-mail, and while as translators we know that the written medium is a fantastic choice for many things, it also has myriad limitations. People could read things into it that you did not mean, the tone can come across differently than you intended it to (especially if you have a quirky writing style and the other person does not know you well), you can come across as too direct or not direct enough, etc. In spoken communication, especially when we are actually looking at each other, things are easier because non-verbal communication is an essential part of communication that makes it easy for humans to decipher the other's intent by evaluating tone, body language, pitch of voice, etc. We don't have that in written communication, and we need to be aware of this fact. By that we don't mean adding emoticons to business e-mails (we actually highly discourage you from doing so), but we mean that you should be very careful about what you put in writing.

We recently worked on a large legal case that included a government subpoena and some 1.1 million e-mails, and we bet that none of the people who wrote those e-mails ever expected anyone other than the recipient to read them--this in spite of the well-known fact that e-mail is never truly private. We think it's essential to keep in mind that you should never put anything in writing that you wouldn't feel comfortable seeing on the front page of the newspaper the next morning. This is a little internal test that we use quite frequently, and it works for us.  Here are a few other e-mail tips you might find useful:

  • Don't send e-mails when you are angry. It's fine to write them, but just don't hit the "send" button until you have let some time pass. Let the message sit for a few hours or a few days (as long as it's not urgent), and come back to it later. Keep in mind that you usually can't take back what you have written, so think before hitting "send."
  • Have someone give you a sanity check. For very important communication via e-mail, we look over each other's e-mail to make sure the tone is right. It's good to have someone double-check your messages, especially if you have any doubt about whether what you are writing is appropiate. Of course you shouldn't need to do this very frequently, but probably just a few times a year or so.
  • If you have any doubt about whether you should send the message or not, don't send it. Your instincts are probably good, so delete the message and start over.
  • Be brief. Judy has a tendency to write e-mails that are too long for everyone, so she's worked hard on changing that, and has also tried to learn from her lawyer husband who's fantastic at writing succinct messages. Read through the message again before sending it and see if you can strip out unnecessary sections. It's a sign of good writing, and your e-mails are also more likely to be read that way.
What about you, dear colleagues and readers? Is there anything you would like to add to this non-exhaustive list? We look forward to reading your comments. 


Tiphaine on September 9, 2016 at 3:34 AM said...

Hello there,

I would not rule out smileys, especially with agencies. More and more PMs are using them and I like to adopt my contact's tone.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on September 14, 2016 at 3:58 PM said...

@Tiphanie: Ah yes, good point indeed. If the other person uses a lot of smileys, it is of course a good idea to follow suit. Thanks for reading and commenting!

EP on October 22, 2016 at 8:50 AM said...

Oh man. That part about not sending an email when your angry? Underscore it and put it in capital letters. That happened to me recently and I don't even want to talk about it. Think three times first before sending it - and then don't.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 23, 2016 at 8:36 PM said...

@EP: Ah, yes, those are dangerous indeed, aren't they? The good news is that this is probably something you only do once...and sleeping on those e-mails is always a good idea. That strategy has saved us from many an e-mail we would have regretted. And hang in there--this too shall pass. Thanks for reading and for commenting, as always!

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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