Your Emails Just Kill Me!

Hi Alex,

You haven’t given me the dates yet for when we’re meeting. Let me know this week, please.

Alison ‘

This email may seem rather too direct for some people, OK for others and a few may regard this as extraordinarily polite: there is a ‘please’ there, after all!

How direct we can be with others depends on the following:

  1. culture: some nationalities are generally more direct than others;
  2. context: maybe I’ve sent you 3 emails for the dates and you still haven’t got back to me;
  3. status: am I your boss, your supplier, your colleague, a trainee?
  4. personality: there are people you know who just ‘say it as it is’, and you can let it go. That comes down to trust: trust in the fact there’s no animosity behind the words. You don’t take it as a ‘stab’. Or you simply trust that they wouldn’t be so upfront unless there was, what you consider, to be some fairness there.

All this would depend on how well you know others and this could mean some trial and a couple of ‘errors’. Regard that as feedback and modify if it’s going to make a working relationship too prickly.

The Directness Thermometer

The Anglo-Saxon culture represents an email minefield for both natives and non-natives and even us Brits need to learn the art of ‘padding’ or softening requests, making them less direct.

However, be aware that ‘padding’ could seem non-committal in other cultures, so being more direct would mean that you actually get your requests fulfilled rather than brushed aside. So here’s a padding temperature gauge, starting with the most direct and progressing to the most polite…

Oy, give me that document now.
Oy, give me that document now, please
Give me that document now, please.
Do me a favour. Give me that document.
Could you please give me that document?
Would you be able to give me that document?
Can I ask you to give me that document?
(Despite the wording, you ARE actually asking for the document, not asking if you can ask for it. This is typical of an Anglo Saxon indirect request)
May I ask you to give me that document?
Would it be possible to ask you for that document?
Please, would it be – perhaps – possible that a chance may exist at some convenient point that you may be so kind as to give me that document?
(At this point, you’re on your knees, begging to a psychopath who has electric probes pointing at your head.  Maybe you’ll need this.  Maybe you won’t.  I’d say, think about re-evaluating the need for this relationship…)

There’s much reading between the lines in certain cultures such as Anglo-Saxon and South-East Asian countries. In his book, ‘Beyond Culture’, Edward Hall defines cultures such as the Japanese and Chinese high -context cultures.  One of the characteristics of such nations is that reading between the lines needs to be a common practice. These nationalities aren’t as literal, as ‘out there’ as cultures like the U.S or Germany, which Hall would define as low context.

How to Read Between the Lines

The Anglo Saxon culture can be a particular nightmare as it straddles both the high and low so here’s a short guide as to the (possible) meanings behind the words:

1.  You’ve misunderstood/You’re wrong!
= Maybe I didn’t make myself clear

2.   How many times do I need to TELL you?!/As I’ve told you…
= I do need to emphasise/Following my email (below)

3.   Why are you sending me this? Seems useless to me.
= Interesting. How do you see me using this?

4.    The client will think you’re (an idiot/going mad…)
= This may be perceived as (risky/unusual)…

5.    What changes! I seem to have lost my crystal ball.
= I wasn’t aware of any changes.

6.    Do this now. You should have done this yesterday.
= May I request you to do this now?

7.   What a rip-off! Do I look like a mug?!
= We’ll need to revisit the costings.

8.    I can’t see you tomorrow.
= I’m not sure I can see you tomorrow.

General rules are as follows:

  1. Instead of blaming others with a finger-pointing ‘you’, the Brits would tend to use the passive form (no person).  For example: “This may be perceived…”
  2. If there’s a problem to be solved, especially in negotiations, ‘we’ would be more likely, as in number 7.
  3. We’ll pad for requests, as in ‘May I request…?”.
  4. Substitute ‘Why?’ for ‘What would be the reasons for…’ or ‘How do you…’ as in number 2.
  5. Brits may use modals of probability such as ‘may/may not’ or phrases such as ‘I’m not sure that I can…’ as in number 8 instead of saying what they mean: ‘I can’t..’

Pick up the Phone

There are those who seem very off-putting in their email communication because they can’t see the effect their style is having or they hear their words differently to how the recipient is playing them back in their heads.

I know a delightful woman who is always irritating others with her email style.  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  She really is a lovely person but because she doesn’t know how to word her requests, she sounds aggressive.  Face to face, you get a completely different impression.

Tread carefully when you need to and you’ll be able to get your point across clearly without severing the relationship (unless you want to, of course..).  Do note, though, that sometimes the easiest action to take, if you do find yourself in a battle of words and wills, is to pick up the phone.

More often than not, hearing the intonation behind the intention will help both parties realise that an over-reliance on virtual contact may not be too constructive.


Need some help with how you communicate across cultures?  Click here and I may well be able to help you even more.


  • Adele Loew says:

    Alison, hi! How are you? Thank you so much for this. Your content I could rely on 🙂 Simply love it!

  • Frank says:

    I wish it wasn’t how you describe it but I must agree with everything you say. I might not have the wealth of experience to back this claim of mine but I feel that a major contribution to a successful business deal comes from building and maintaining good *personal* business relationships, regardless of a business value proposition.
    Therefore I think there should be more (relative) emphasis on teaching subjects like yours rather than how to create business plans, market strategies, etc. After all haven’t many of us wondered once before how company A could buy such a bad product from company B? And the opposite also holds true.

    • Alison says:

      Yes, I agree, Frank, communication and its emphasis on emails can make or break relationships. If you click on ‘Effective Communication’ in ‘Words in Your Ear’ in the left-hand column you’ll see several other blogs that I’ve written on emails, specifically. Enjoy!

  • Kayode Oyesiku says:

    Alison, thank you for this. It is very instructive and educative. Best regards.

  • HR Manager says:

    Truly great, can I add the Americanism, “WHERE’s the document?” Eyebrow arched.

  • Roland Hall says:

    If it’s important, pick up the phone and ask. Don’t mention the prior email message(s). Ask your question, get an answer, move on.

    Rarely will I send a 2nd request in email. Email is a “when you have time” request. Time is money and if someone is messing with my calendar, they’re either omitted or I will pick up the phone and call. I call when it’s important to me. If not, then I just continue assuming they will not be present.

    I don’t care why they have not responded. It’s meaningless and I’m not judging. If they can’t be timely, then… And, no hard feelings. If you miss the boat, swim or wait for the next one. It’s just that simple.

    Only worry about the big things. Someone not responding in my time is not a big thing. To date, I have not experienced any big things, so I don’t worry.

    • Alison says:

      Hi Roland! I think you make a good point: some people won’t pick up the phone because if the email has received no response then ‘they obviously don’t want to respond’. This is a misconception that stops people from speaking. With 100s of emails flooding through daily, people will often make bigger decisions by phone than by email (trading floors are the example that springs to mind right now). The reason email has become overused is that staff need to have audit trails, which is understandable, but they’re good for legal proceedings and not necessarily for communication!

  • Francisco says:

    very interesting, specially in the middle eastern culture use of e-mail has to restricted as, like Japanese or Chinese, they read between the lines. So in short, culture, where you are communicating and to whom when and why is very important. I really enjoyed reading and you have wealth of knowledge. God bless you.

    • Alison says:

      Thanks, Francisco! Yes, knowing who you’re communicating with is very important, and sometimes that takes a bit of trial and error!

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