Do this to avoid dropping email bombs! (Also for difficult face to face conversations)

Have you ever sent what you thought was a fairly innocent email only to receive an unwarranted harsh response? Maybe you’ve been shocked by what you perceive to be a curt Whatsapp or text message.

With the lack of extra signals in emails, such as gesture, eye movements – an eye roll or a cheeky glint – our intent can be lost as much on a phone as in email.  Even a relatively innocuous exchange has the capacity for misunderstandings.

This is even more rife between cultures, with some cultures being way more direct than others.

The Israelis, for example, just say it.  The English, delete a sentence three times before wrapping it up in a blanket and kissing it goodbye.

Research has shown again and again that we greatly overestimate our capacity for being understood clearly, assuming that what we say is what’s understood.

I recall my Polish friend, Aleksandra asking whether I was free to speak on a Tuesday at 2pm.  Being English, I replied “I don’t think I am.”  This is English for ‘no’.  So I was momentarily surprised when Aleksandra sent me another message the following day asking me if I could confirm whether I was sure yet whether I was available.

Then I remembered she’s Polish and isn’t as terrified by saying what she means.

“No.  I’m afraid not,” I replied.

It’s easy to take for granted that just because our intent is clear to us, that it will be received with the same clarity when actually them meaning is scrambled by the time it meets it’s recipient.

So how can this intent be clearly communicated when levels of directness vary?   Even the English may end up writing then deleting a sentence 3 times before pressing send.

2017 research on intercultural misunderstandings discusses the concept of pseudo-conflicts.  This is where there’s a misunderstanding which is resolved when the parties realise that no real conflict exists.  But these misunderstandings can easily escalate into real conflicts.

For this reason, here’s a short activity I use with participants on my Written Communication and Cross-Cultural workshops, where we look some principles that calibrate language so you can adapt your directness more knowingly

If you need to double lock your intent, even Nick Morgan, speaking coach, is a real fan boy of the emoji.  And he’s a Baby Boomer.  Some people think emojis are childish but they may do well in covering your arse ?.

These tips will cover you within your own culture as well as across others, when you need to:

  • give feedback;
  • direct others;
  • seek clarity;
  • question facts;
  • state consequences.


Know how to calibrate your communication – a quiz ?

Click on a card on the left and then click on what you think is the card on the right with the more diplomatic phrasing. Answers are revealed at the end!


6 ways to deflate potentially difficult communications

When you look at the answers in the quiz, you’ll notice this is how you can soften the language:

  1. hedging language such as ‘may’, ‘could be’;
  2. impersonal constructions as in the passive ‘it wasn’t done’;
  3. ‘we’ for problem solving;
  4. ‘I’ to avoid blaming or sounding accusative. Kamala Harris’ example to Mike Pence below could have been “You’re interrupting me, again, Mikey Mike.”  However, she took a different turn….

5. ‘you’ to give control or benefit;
6. replacing commands with questions.

Making it direct, simply means stripping out any of those six factors but it doesn’t mean lacking the courtesy of ‘please’ and thank you.   In addition, framing your email with ‘I hope you’re well’ and “Thanks for doing [specific action]” can show you come in peace, not war, without fogging your meaning.



The punctuation you use can alter the tone conveyed.  For example:

“Could you please do this now?” may be used with a client or colleague.

“Could you please do this now.” has a more authoritative air.  This would be more applicable for someone your managing, when you’ve asked for something three times already.


Your Action Steps:

    1. As you write, take into account the following factors to measure how forthright you can be:
      1. Culture: e.g. national / company;
      2. Status: e.g. your manager / a colleague;
      3. Context: e.g. urgency
      4. Personality: e.g. are they triggered easily?
    2. If you’ve an email that you think could be misunderstood, do any of these:
      1. read it aloud;
      2. read it to someone else;
      3. put it in drafts and look at it later;
    3. Remember, if you’ve been too direct, you may find out from the response.  All is not lost: not every individual who’s upfront in their approach wants the same level of directness back.  Get on the phone or consider writing a more carefully worded response: don’t mirror back what you get as that could escalate into conflict.
    4. If you need to be direct but think your intention could be misunderstood, then frame your email with softener openings and closings.

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