These days our inboxes are filled with so many alerts and promotions we didn’t realize we signed up for—yes Amazon, we are aware we still have items in our cart—it’s almost refreshing when we receive an email from an actual human. But not all bot-free messages elicit a cheerful response, and some can be downright stressful—especially if they include three worrisome little words. Whether to an employee, your boss, a friend or partner, if you’re writing an email there are some things that should be avoided if you’re at all concerned about your recipient’s blood pressure. There’s a good chance you don’t even realize your word choice is cause for concern, so read on to learn the three words you should never use in an email.
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Never say “can we talk” in an email.
In a recent article in Fast Company, Nathan Rice, a digital etiquette expert and partner at the marketing agency Haberman, details what he dubs the dreaded “boss email” containing the subject line “can we talk?” Reading those words can instantly make anyone’s heart jump into their throat and begin envisioning the worst case scenario—even if the email isn’t from an employer. “Let’s connect at 3” can set someone off in a similar tailspin.
What’s missing here? Context. “Your intention might just be to brainstorm live about an upcoming project or share news on a change in the company that is easier done in person,” Rice writes. “Still, without context, it’s easy for anyone to wonder if it’s performance-based, or worse, layoff-related.” Rice doesn’t think that your boss is sending this type of email to purposely rattle you, calling it more of a “blindspot than an intentional slight,” but it’s something we should all be aware of.
It’s not only bosses who should watch out for the phrase.
This digital faux pas warning is not just for the higher-ups—no need to make your boss worry that you’re quitting with a vague email when you’re just wondering if you can pivot your focus. “Digital etiquette does not discriminate,” Rice tells Best Life. “It should most certainly go both ways and applies to every person, every email conversation.”
And of course, when it come to relationships, romantic or otherwise, no one wants to be on the receiving end of a “can we talk?” email. “Our work and social lives are so intertwined today, so how we act and our etiquette should be applied to both,” Rice says. “While the dynamics are different in personal relationships, the feelings are the same. When you send your partner a ‘can we talk?’ text the same human feelings result.” Perhaps even worse, with the thought of a potential breakup on the horizon.
“When coming from a digital etiquette perspective, we want to be good hosts—make people feel comfortable,” Rice adds. “The ‘can we talk’ email subject line is simply lousy etiquette as it does the opposite. It doesn’t inform the reader of intent or provide them value, and potentially does harm.”
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Rude emails can take a toll on your wellbeing.
Studies have shown that “dealing with rude e-mails at work can create lingering stress and take a toll on the recipient’s wellbeing,” reports Scientific American. The publication looked at a study in which participants in a simulated work experiment received negative messages from their bosses and discovered that they “experienced more negative emotions, found it harder to stay engaged in work tasks, and answered fewer questions correctly than the control group.”
And many people can’t help but take this type of stress home, with another study showing that employees who received negative messages during a workday were more “likely to report more stress symptoms both in the evening and the following morning.”
Here’s what to write in an email instead.
You might send an email without context simply because you’re busy. “We are all moving fast and, generally, action is rewarded,” Rice says. But slowing down just a bit may make it more pleasant for everyone involved. Rice makes a habit of writing, reading, then re-reading every email. “It is not uncommon for me to go for a short walk or do a series of jumping jacks before revisiting my draft emails,” he says. When writing an email, he asks himself, “am I providing the reader value?” He also follows these guidelines:
Keep it simple.
Provide some context.
“In the spirit of simplicity, it seems like we can all go back to the old adage ‘treat others how you would want to be treated,'” Rice says. “I think we can even move beyond that though: Practice empathy, learn to slow down, do some jumping jacks, and re-read that email before you hit send.”
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