There are a lot of ways that an email can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. To make up for the tone of voice that’s unmistakable over the phone or the body language that speaks volumes in person, you’ve got to carefully, sometimes tactfully choose the phrasing you use.
To be honest, I don’t love how often I throw in an exclamation point to indicate that things are fine, good, never better, or to show my appreciation for a request being fulfilled—but sometimes there’s no other way to show I’m game. Sometimes, though, not even an excited piece of punctuation can save the situation if the meaning of your words contains even an underlying hostility.
Before you dash off a hasty email and risk offending or annoying the receiver, check out these common but unpopular lines and opt for an alternative instead.
1. “Sorry to Be a Burden/Bother”
This is such a passive-aggressive line. In almost 100% of cases when this line is used, the person isn’t apologetic at all, and they don’t think they’re being a burden or a bother. Rather, nine times out of 10, they’re employing this phrase because they want to get the attention (and maybe sympathy or pity) of the reader. They assume that taking this approach will elicit a compassionate response from the receiver.
Instead Say: “Thank You for Being Patient With Me”
This indicates responsibility for whatever it is that’s taking place and is far more likely to be met with a generous response and maybe even the reassurance that it’s not a problem. And if you really do need a response ASAP, this is the best way to get a follow-up fast.
2. “Whatever You Think”
OK, let’s assume that this has been uttered following a request for input. If the request was sincere but you’re annoyed that there’s any back and forth whatsoever (your idea was just fine the initial way you presented it, thank you very much), then let me be the first to tell you that these three seemingly harmless words convey your annoyance and frustration in spades.
Instead Say: “I’m Open to Your Ideas and Am Happy to Do Some More Brainstorming”
This demonstrates that you have an active interest in finding a solution that’s agreeable and appropriate. There’s really never a time time that “whatever you think” is read as a flexible and accepting statement. It doesn’t suggest that you’re willing to be a team player; it sounds like you’re miffed that your idea wasn’t accepted without question. Don’t be that self-righteous person.
3. “Please Advise”
It’s formal and a little bit demanding when you think about it. Furthermore, it doesn’t open up the discussion; it’s pushy, indicating that you don’t have time for this and just need clear instructions on next steps fast. But, unfortunately, not everything turns on a dime. Sometimes, the back and forth and room for discussion is necessary for an agreeable end result.
Instead Say: “Let Me Know if You Have Any Thoughts on How to Proceed With This”
Reframing the response like this encourages engagement and an open dialogue. You’re essentially saying that you’re open to the other person’s opinions on the matter, but are also OK figuring out a workaround yourself if that’s preferable.
4. “I Hope It’s More to Your Liking”
The person saying this is perfectly pleased with whatever “it” is—and was. But, alas, he’s been met with a less-than-thrilled feedback and has adjusted accordingly so that the one assessing it will be happy. The reality though is that he doesn’t care, since he probably saw no need to make any modifications in the first place.
Instead Say: “I’m Interested in Your Feedback on This Update”
Being open to hearing feedback, even if you suspect it may not be 100% positive, is a crucial part of improving and advancing. We can all stand to make adjustments from time to time based on constructive criticism. Even if you’re not actually super interested per se, put on your best game face and embrace the feedback.
None of us are perfect or always know exactly what to say, but sometimes it’s a simple matter of thinking before you speak and asking yourself if what you’re about to say can possibly be construed in the wrong way. Momentarily offending someone to get through your own to-do list won’t do you any good in the long run.
Photo of person looking frustrated courtesy of Jetta Productions/Getty Images.