Email Penalty #4 – False Start

Kiara Orange BeltLast Saturday, my daughter earned her orange belt in Karate. So we decided to treat her to some ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

You would think that an ice cream shop just down the street from the YMCA on a Saturday afternoon in August would be packed with happy chocolate coated faces.  Yet, we were the only customers.  Strange….

As we ate our ice cream and I walked around I started to realize that something was odd.  See if you can guess from these pictures I took with my cell phone…

No Restrooms

No Tipping




I’m sure the owner had a good reason for each of these signs. But taken together, the impression I got was that she didn’t trust her employees and she didn’t trust her customers. In short, she didn’t consider how her customers’ might interpret or misinterpret the message that these signs were supposed to convey.

Emails can be the same.

When you write an email, you know exactly what you mean to say. But emails are just words and words are open to misinterpretation. If you write something in haste or just the wrong way, you can give a false impression, even if you don’t mean to. As a simple example, here is an email that I received recently from a former co-worker to whom I had not spoken in over 10 years:

My son’s high school robotics team has a competition at Northridge this week, so we’re going to be in town.  Here is our rough itinerary (below).  Would love to meet you and Joyce and any others at some point on the itinerary.   Please make suggestions for an activity (spice it up a bit — think like a high school kid).

I’m sure that Dave just wanted to catch up on old times.  But I felt like I was being commissioned to plan an activity that was going to keep his high school age son, whom I had never met, from being bored. Not exactly what I had expected.

To be fair, I’ve done this too. What makes email so powerful, is that it is quick, easy, and immediate. And that is also the danger when it comes to misinterpretation.  Back in the “old days”, when we had to hand write and mail letters, we had plenty of time to choose our words carefully and read and rewrite what we had written. With email, you can just hit “send” and off it goes.

So, how can you and I keep from making this mistake?

A good rule of thumb, before sending an email, is to read it and ask “how might this email be misinterpreted”? Read it like you’re reading it for the first time. Put yourself in the shoes of the recipients. Try to anticipate what they might misinterpret and fix it. Especially if the email is important or sensitive. Especially if you are delivering bad news.

Better yet, if there is any doubt, pick up the phone or get off your butt and walk over to have a face-to-face conversation. And if it’s a real sensitive topic, discuss it over an ice cream.

harry the ASIC guy

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3 Responses to “Email Penalty #4 – False Start”

  1. KarenB says:

    How right you are! Here’s an excerpt from one of my emails this week:

    It’s great being a girl sometimes!! Wait, I mean “sometimes it’s great being a girl!”

  2. Lu Ellen says:

    Loved the photos from the Baskin Robbins. You are so right about their conveying messages that the manager did not intent. I would not like to walk into a place with all those signs, either. It reminds me of a Bed and Breakfast which is filled with cute little notes about what not to do….And you are right, once again, about email being misread. That is why I have found myself slapping in those little smiley faces as it is one of the few tools we have for adding lightness to an email which could easily be misinterpreted.
    Keep up the good work! Cheers, Lu Ellen : )

  3. Thanks Lu Ellen,

    I appreciate the comments. I’m sure for you, working all around the world, email gets even more challenging.

    Take care 🙂

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