Nov 20, 2015, 09:48AM

Tone Is Everything

The limits of email. 

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I spend an agonizing amount of time at work arriving at the right tone with which to pose or respond to questions via email. As a telecommuting employee, tone becomes roughly three times as important as it would otherwise be; I can’t just flippantly write and send a message, then saunter over to the recipient’s desk to discuss things or smooth out any rough edges I couldn’t bother to sand down electronically. An over-determined degree of poise is crucial—even if all that’s required is a tacit acknowledgement of receipt and the conveyance of intent to execute whatever task or series of tasks lay at hand.

Perhaps this is why “understood,” a response favored by one of my program managers, looms so large in my discourse—it’s an all-purpose conflict solvent, the rhetorical equivalent of a Nissan Versa. “Understood” may act as evidence of a compliant stolidity, as a useful shield when a favor or order is not truly suited to your taste, or a dodge for instances when you’re too snowed under to cough up a response cogent enough to be actionably meaningful. It’s like if you’re teetering on the edge of a “drunk and disorderly” charge outside a bar, and a police officer is on the verge of arresting you; you act like a fool, and the officer barks “sir,” again and again. Each “sir” is, technically, a gesture of deference, but it’s also a warning that the officer is an immovable object in danger of imposing upon your personal space if you refuse to dial yourself down.

There are limits to “understood,” in the same way that there are limits to anything; “understood” can be abused, leaned on, and ruined. Under more informal circumstances—say you’re conversing with a co-worker about matters that aren’t time-sensitive—it’s equally possible to over-extend “okay,” because “okay’ is easy and dependable in the way “understood” is for those breathing the rarefied air your particular pay grade. Under duress, you might even mix and match these rejoinders. If you’re lucky, these transgressions go unnoticed, but by and large, it’s important to give some thought to everything you say, since a) an embryonic version of Skynet is capturing everything for posterity and b) the intended recipients may, someday, read it.


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