Four words we use in work emails that we don’t always mean

Professional life is tough. Striking the right tone on inter-business communication can be a lot trickier than just “To Whom It May Concern.” You want to sound authoritative, but not like a robot, friendly, but in control of the situation. So much nuance can get edited out of e-mail communication that it’s difficult to present our best, boss selves at all times and not sound like an android.

I reached out to an HR Manager at a Publishing and Media Company in Los Angeles to talk about this challenge. (I’m going to call her “Erin” for this article.) Erin coaches employees in resolving inter-office conflicts—so she’s seen quite a few emails in her day. She noticed employees hedging and lowering their voices. She explained that those people are usually trying to balance two roles: being an amenable team player and being a badass boss (my words, not hers).

And while those two roles are important ones to master, the problem is that we often allow the team player role to outweigh the badass boss role. So Erin and I talked about what we can do, what words we can cut out of emails to sound like a warm but totally-with-it employee. The tweaks are small, barely noticeable—but they make a big difference. Here are some tips on how to email like a boss.

Cut down on the word “maybe”

This word sneaks into emails like this: “Maybe we should meet,” “Maybe I misunderstood,” or “Maybe you’d like to discuss.” Erin told me that she sees “maybe” come up when a someone is trying to get her point across without sounding too—jeez, I hate this word, but here it goes—bossy. The email writer backs down on what she’s trying to say and creates room that “maybe” she’s wrong. It’s a mechanism to sidestep giving too strong an opinion or taking the lead on something. Plus, it’s a natural instinct to soften the tone of an email, which can come off as unduly harsh. But, of course, we don’t need to sidestep! Don’t allow the smallest chance for your reader to think you’re being indecisive. Own those opinions. No maybe about it.

“I think” is usually implied. You can delete it!

“I think” is a tricky phrase. It’s one a lot of us use all the time, but you don’t really need it. After all, if an email is coming from you, it’s already implied that the thoughts are yours.  Moreover, it’s usually a phrase that is not needed. Case in point: “I think we should get ice cream for lunch today” vs. “We should get ice cream for lunch today.” Without “I think,” every sentence becomes stronger, more convincing and a better reflection of your opinion. (Now I want ice cream for lunch today.)

No more “just”

We totally get why you use the word “just.” But you don’t really need to. It makes whatever you follow up with sound small. Same thing for, “Just a thought!” Thoughts are big. And if you’re taking the time to email about it, chances are that thought is important. Cutting out “just” helps it sound that way. Overusing “unfortunately”

Erin pointed out “unfortunately” to me. And once she did, I saw it everywhere. Things like, “Unfortunately, I’m double booked at that time,” or “Unfortunately, that’s not going to work out.” It makes the email writer sound like things are out of her control—as if, she has no say in what’s occurring. It communicates, “I would do things differently, but the universe is conspiring against me and I can’t.” We don’t need to blame the universe for things! Someone plan a meeting when you’re already busy? Too bad. Someone asking for something that isn’t going to happen? That’s work. There’s no reason to indirectly apologize for things that are just the realities of working life.

Too much “Thanks!”

Now, of course, “Thanks!” is a very important word and should be used often to show appreciation. However, Erin explained that many people use “Thanks!” as their sign-off line—whether or not there’s anything to be appreciated. The indirect message is that we’re just thanking people for responding to us—even though that’s part of their job. We shouldn’t thank co-workers purely for giving us their time because it implies that their time is worth more. (Again, when someone is helpful and there is a reason to say “Thanks,” then let the “Thanks!” fly.) But we need to save thanking someone for when we actually need to show gratitude. Much like we need to save “sorry” for when we actually need to apologize.

Let’s draft our emails and take out the words that make us sound lesser. And let’s use our voices to sound confident and strong. After all, that’s what we are.

[Image via CBS]