Improve Your Email Nonverbal Communication Skills

Imagine entering your office in the morning, coffee in hand… You open your Outlook and among numerous unread emails you see a message from your boss that you have not seen, which reads like this:

Subj: org ch

Pls come see me ASA{.

What was the first thought that crossed your mind?..

I leave it to you to come up with different scenarios. Unless you work in Paradise, I bet your scenario will not be very encouraging. Try to work on it for a few more moments, and you will develop a nasty feeling that will linger on with you for quite some time, even though nothing has happened (the email got into your inbox by mistake).

The reason behind your anxiety is simple. Every communication consists of two parts: the content and the emotion. Face-to-face communication is charged with emotion, and we are very good at reading the other party’s non-verbal cues because that skill has been polished throughout the evolution of human species. Basically, this is why we are still alive. Email, on the other hand, has limited possibilities to convey anything but the facts. Hence, the five words hastily fired by the boss smell of urgency — and danger.

One might argue that business correspondence is “facts only,” like a laundry list. Not true. Even the laundry list will give out a few non-verbal cues that send a message about its author. Is it formatted with bullets or numbers — or not formatted? Shirts first, then underwear, then socks — or the other way round? Or not sorted?..

I hear that you do not care what the chambermaid thinks about your message … and she will hear that, too. So do not complain afterward.

We all are unconscious experts on the nonverbal cues — which, in turn, are unconscious as well. In fact, the verbal and the nonverbal part of any communication are inseparable. It is almost impossible to produce nonverbal keys consciously. Unless you have been trained by a specialist, your conscious nonverbal communication will look fake and thus tip off the other party that you are not authentic and therefore cannot be trusted.

But here is the good news. In email, as opposed to the face-to-face communication, there is a “Delete” button that you can consciously use multiple times before you hit “Send”. If you care about the message you want to deliver, you will improve your email nonverbal communication cues as well as the image you want to project.

Here are some verbal Do’s and Don’ts and their nonverbal consequences.

Do always say “Hi” — or whatever is appropriate, like in a face-to-face situation. Would you find it agreeable if someone that you may know stops in the street and asks, “Will you hold this for me, please”?

Do use the person’s name — or names if there are not more than three or four addressees. Human beings like hearing their name and therefore will be more open to accept the request that follows. And please, do spell the name correctly. Even if you start your email with ‘Dear Catherine,” the nonverbal message that Katherine gets is: “It is not your big personality that attracts me.”

Do “mirror” the non-verbal cues of your addressee; it will make him or her comfortable and more receptive, same as when talking face-to-face. Without overthinking it, just use the same salutation and closing, similar vocabulary and writing style. One of my bosses always requested to “eschew obfuscation” and “espouse elucidation,” I obliged, and we worked together in harmony.

Do check your spelling and grammar. Keep your spellchecker on. Grammatical errors mean that writing is not your strongest point, or this is not your mother tongue. That may be forgiven. But typos mean that you do not care. It feels like shaking hands with someone who does not wash his hands ever.

Do not use offensive language or profanities, even if that is the other party’s native tongue. That’s not professional. Imagine an appointment with a medical specialist who prefers this informal way of explaining how your body and some specific organs function. Not funny when you are the patient.

The non-standard vocabulary seems to be gaining ground these days. Not so long ago a LinkedIn member published an article on Pulse, with typical four-letter words everywhere, starting with the title. The post collected an astonishing number of likes, shares and comments. Having begun my working career in the commercial port, with stevedores, and seamen from all over the world, I have enough credentials to sit on the jury of an international swearing contest. Trust me, professional people do not use this vocabulary, not even “off-duty”: it sends the wrong nonverbal cues. If you are reading this, you do not want those associated with your image.

Do not just hit “Reply all”. Unless this is the objective, your do not want to sound like “Hey you all, listen to me!” You will be respected more if you remove “innocent bystanders” from the “To” line and move to “Copy” those who should “stay in the loop.” Otherwise, if you “summon all hands” every time, your people will start ignoring your emails eventually or will read them only if and when they have extra time to read emails on which they were copied.

Of course, do make sure that the people you expect to act on your email are in the “To” line. Receiving a request for action while being only “Cc’d” feels like talking to someone facing away from you.

Do respond to the email within the timeframe realistically expected by the sender. Again, think of a face-to-face exchange: What is the nonverbal cue sent by your interlocutor by not saying anything in reply? What would you normally think about him?

Write concise emails. Make your objective clear to the receiver. But being succinct does not mean being curt or rude. Avoid using abbreviations that could be misunderstood (“Alex: F/U” — What? Love you too, boss.) and when you express thanks or gratitude, weed out “gd day”, “tks”, “Rgds” etc. Not a big saving timewise but it suggests that your gratitude may not be genuine.

If you are far from “all those niceties,” then saying nothing at all may produce a better overall nonverbal message: “That’s the real me. I do not care. But I do not lie to you about it.”

It is not an excuse though. Nor is “I have no time for this.” Both statements send a nonverbal message to your team that you do not want to take pains to make your work, as well as their work, more productive, and you do not value much the fruits of their labor.

Research shows that face-to-face communication is the most efficient, while email communication is the most inefficient, rivaled by texting only. Still, email remains the most preferred form of communication today. Therefore making an effort to improve your email nonverbal communication skills will increase your team’s efficiency.

Also published on LinkedIn Pulse. Feel free to forward an email message for nonverbal assessment.