As someone who worries about accidentally offending people, I tend to go overboard in email—especially when giving feedback.
I use excessive exclamation points, pose my constructive criticism in question form (“I think this report could use some visuals?”), and always ask if they’d prefer to just meet in person to discuss further.
Sometimes I’ll reread messages I sent and cringe—the exclamation marks that felt so friendly when I wrote my response now make it look like I’m unhealthily obsessed with visuals in presentations.
While I know I need to dial these habits down a notch sometimes, I did recently read something that made me smile. Turns out that all my warm-and-fuzziness is actually giving me a leg-up.
According to a recent article on Quiet Revolution titled, “7 Ways to Use Powerless Communication,” these are just some of the techniques of people who are more influential and successful over email. Basically, she says, people who come across as more humble, otherwise known as “powerless communicators,” tend to inspire trust and build stronger relationships.
And the opposite is true, too—when you phrase questions as orders, use only periods, and talk with too much authority in your emails, you’re less likely to get a good response (or a response at all). Says QR founder and author of the article, Susan Cain:
It boils down to this insight: When people think you’re trying to influence them, they put their guard up. But when they feel you’re trying to help them, to muse your way to the right answer, or to be honest about your own imperfections, they open up to you. They hear what you have to say.
What does this mean? That being less formal, less confident, and more emotional in your emails isn’t such a bad thing—in fact, says Cain citing author Adam Grant’s research, “powerless communicators bring in 68% more revenue.”
Obviously, peppering every email you send with emojis, all caps, and question marks to properly express your feelings will probably make you come across as unprofessional, unsure, and even inappropriate in certain situations. But other times, it could make all the difference.
Maybe that means asking for someone’s approval before tossing another assignment their way: Does this work for you? Happy to discuss how to split up the work between us! rather than I need your notes by Friday.
Or, taking a moment to make your requests sound human—for example, saying Could you get back to me with thoughts? rather than Please advise.
Or, even just signing your emails off with “Thanks!” or “Have a great weekend!” rather than the more formal “Best.”
Just as you wouldn’t talk to your colleagues in person in an extremely buttoned-up, formal way, you don’t want to come across as cold over email. Because if you want people to respond, you need to give them a good reason to—and someone who’s friendly and sometimes vulnerable is ultimately much more likely to earn respect than someone who doesn’t open up at all.
Want to know what else really peeves your co-workers? We’ve compiled all the email etiquette tips you need to ensure everyone actually reads (and responds) to your messages.