Several years ago when I taught elementary school, our principal asked the teachers to please call a parent when possible instead of sending a note or email.
Initially, I was aggravated by this. Break times were short. Typically, we had about twenty minutes—after we’d finished walking our young students through the lunch line—to use the bathroom, check our mailboxes, eat our lunches, return a phone call, ready our classroom for the next lesson, and take care of any other business. I much preferred dashing off a quick email to calling a parent, no matter how much I may have personally liked that parent. Evening phone calls were not preferable, in my opinion, because I wanted to devote most of that time to my own children.
However, I soon came to appreciate the principal’s reason for that request. He felt it was often difficult to convey a particular tone through written word that could more easily be communicated with one’s voice. The intention of emails and notes can be misinterpreted—and not always in a good way.
I was reminded of this truth again a few days ago. A company with whom I’ve done business received an email from a (probably) well-intentioned individual who was inquiring about contract work. Rather than introduce herself and state her credentials, she rather bluntly listed what she saw as errors on the company’s website and then suggested the company hire her to put things right. (She did later list her credentials, but I doubt the hiring manager read that far.)
Any business manager wants to feel good about his or her organization. If you’re hoping to connect in a good way with the managers of a company, it’s probably best to avoid adopting a tone—intentional or not—that suggests, “Here’s what’s wrong with your company.”
We all make mistakes, and I almost made this one myself recently when I noticed, within the pages of an otherwise beautifully produced local glossy magazine, several articles containing punctuation or grammar errors. The masthead lacked mention of a copy editor or proofreader on staff. My inclination was to write to the editor in chief and offer my paid services as a copy editor—using the many errors I’d noted as proof he needed me.
Fortunately, my common sense took hold before I acted. If I do choose to approach this editor, I’m sure I can come up with a more tactful way to offer my talents than to criticize those of his staff.
But writing isn’t the only way in which we can misrepresent what we really mean to say. Just last week, I taught a workshop for writers. During the Q & A period afterward, one participant raised her hand and said, “You didn’t talk about …” followed by her second comment a few moments later: “You never mentioned…”
Okay, those comments were obviously not meant to be negative, but I bristled slightly. How much more inviting would it have been to say, “Would you please discuss…?” or “Could you tell us a little bit about…?”
I’m sure the workshop attendee had no idea her tone conveyed something other than polite interest, just as I’m sure the emailer who pointed out a company’s website errors intended nothing more than to inquire about job opportunities. She will probably never hear back and won’t know why.
As a small business owner, I know I sometimes get one shot to make a good impression or a connection, and I don’t want to waste it. Regardless of our intentions, what we say and how we say it—verbally or in writing—can make all the difference.