You’re conscientious when it comes to email. In fact, you always try to reply within 24 hours. Scratch that—within moments of an incoming message.
And more often that not, that’s great. But sometimes, sending the first email that comes to mind could backfire—big time. Here are some signs that you should step away from the computer and come back to the message at a later time.
1. Your Response Is Really Long
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to diplomatically tell someone you think he’s an idiot. So, if you compose an email that brilliantly dances around the fact that you despise your co-worker’s thoughts, I can promise you that the email roughly translates to: “Here are some fluffy sentences. P.S. I think your idea sucks.”
If you could write what you’re thinking in one sentence (e.g., “I would never take this approach”) and your email is still three paragraphs long, you’re in trouble. You may think it’s advisable to dedicate one section to how you understand why the other person might be confused, and another to how you know what you’re talking about, and a third to how your plan is better. However, it’s really just more lines that the other person might misread (or, see right through).
Instead, try to be as succinct as possible. If you disagree with someone, a brief “I’m not sure we’re on the same page,” or “I had a different read on it” is actually much nicer—and more efficient.
2. Your Response Is Overflowing With Punctuation
Unless you’re telling someone that something is the best news you’ve ever heard—and it really is—you should be wary of an email full of emphasis. If every other word is bold or italicized or in all caps, and punctuation is in triplicate; the other person is going to assume your meaning is extreme. (In a prior job, I had a client who wrote all of his emails, even the mundane ones, in all caps. The staff lovingly referred to his correspondence as ransom notes.)
But it’s not all fun and games. If your sentiments aren’t positive, the other person could easily think you’re trying to convey anger—as opposed to say, simple confusion. For example, “I’m not sure what that means???!!!!” seems downright hostile. Luckily, the fix here is pretty easy. Limiting yourself to one punctuation mark and no italics (“I’m not sure what that means.”) still expresses that you’re unclear about something, but it in a much more measured way.
3. Your Response Is Unclear (Even to You)
You’re counting down the minutes until the workday is over. Or you’re swamped with work and just trying to keep your head above water. Whatever the reason, you’re unfocused, and you’ve read the email that you’re composing six times.
And sure, you could check it over for a seventh time and then hit send. But if you’re still asking yourself if that line makes sense, it’s a sign that no, it probably doesn’t.
If you can come back to the email, say, after you’ve had some lunch or after the upcoming meeting that’s jeopardizing all of your energy, wait. If you need to respond ASAP, send a short response promising to send on more details later. Often, a quick note confirming receipt and letting someone know you’ll be in touch with more information keeps the lines of communication open—and gives you breathing room to compose your response when you have more bandwidth.
4. Your Response Involves You Going Above and Beyond Your Duties
You know what sorts of messages are typically in your inbox. But on occasion, something comes your way and you think anything from, “Hmm, that’s odd…” to “Wait, is this my job?”
You may want to shoot back a quick reply for several reasons. Maybe you don’t think the issue is worth your supervisor’s time. Maybe a brilliant response comes to mind and you just go for it, figuring it’ll be seen as taking initiative.
For example, say a client emails you about a project that is outside of your workload. So, you figure you’ll see if you can find the answer, and if not, email her back with the name of the person who is handling it. That’s helpful, right? Well, not if there’s a backstory you’re unaware of. Though you had good intentions, you could be putting your co-worker or boss in a tough spot.
A good option is to forward the email to the appropriate person in-house with an offer to help. It looks like this “Arthur of ABC Corporation asked if I could pass along your contact information. Would that be OK?” Or, “Mark asked about the details on XYZ project. Would it be helpful for me to connect him with you or share our timeline?” It might delay your response, but you know you’ll be sending the right one.
Unsure if an email is hitting the right note? Take a break and come back to it.
Photo of locked computer courtesy of Shutterstock.
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author