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Negative Tone in Email: Words to Avoid?

Email LightningEscalation.  Urgent.  Never.  Inability.  Unsound.  Failure.  The use of these words in email can put a writer precariously on the edge of a conveying negative, disrespectful tone.  However, these words certainly don’t guarantee that your tone will fall off a cliff.  There’s more to tone than mere words.In my writing workshops, I’m often asked for a list of words to avoid in writing to prevent creating a hostile tone.  Many participants like clear do’s and don’ts related to word usage.  I oblige with the aforementioned list and sometimes add a few extras:

  • Inordinate
  • Deviation
  • Now
  • Always
  • Weak
  • Totally
  • Never
  • Flawed

But I also note that tone is more art than science, and single words alone don’t convey tone.  Tone is created by the use of words related to the background of the email and the writer’s relationship with the reader.

Consider this scenario:  An employee, Dave, and his boss, Carrie, have a strained relationship at work.  For their latest project, Dave and Carrie have just finished a round of meetings with their team, and Dave has summarized the discussions in a draft project plan.  He emails the plan to Carrie, and she replies with the message below.

Dave,

The project plan needs work.

Carrie

In this email, we have no idea of Carrie’s emotional intent.  Is she upset with Dave’s work?  Or is she evenly stating that they need to continue working on the project plan because it lacks some significant detail?  Regardless of Carrie’s intent, there’s a good chance that Dave won’t react positively to the email based on their current relationship.  And his reaction is likely capped off by choice expletives under his breath.

Carrie’s email didn’t include any of the words from the lists above.  In fact, her choice of words is relatively benign.

Let’s try another scenario, with an email chock-full of aggressive-type words.  In this case, Dave and Carrie have a friendly, respectful relationship, and they are once again working on a project together.  She sends the following email:

Hi Dave,

I’m nearly ready to scream.  This inordinate number of changes required by the client, on top of our inability to overcome the software bugs, is creating an unacceptable risk of a long-term delay with this project.  What are your thoughts on amending the project plan? 

Thanks, 

Carrie

Dave’s reaction?  He understands Carrie’s frustration and agrees that the situation is unacceptable, so he is not offended by the email.

If you write to a colleague when you are upset, you will likely convey that emotion.  If you’re feeling positive, your tone will be positive.  If you disrespect a colleague, your email will likely come off as condescending—regardless of the individual words you use.

Unfortunately.  Absurd.  Inefficient.  Ridiculous.  Strong words?  Yes.  Does their use create a negative tone?  That depends not on them, but you.