Lost in translation: the risk of misinterpreted messages

You invite a candidate into your office for an interview – and receive a quick “k thx” in response.

You end an email to your boss with a sassy joke – and receive no response.

The Wall Street Journal has a great example of an employee freaking out when her boss responded to an enthusiastic update with a simple “Noted” – no, he didn’t even take the time for an exclamation point! It reminds me of a childhood friend who interpreted every pause in a conversation with his girlfriend as a surefire sign that he was getting dumped.

Despite rumors of its demise, email continues to thrive; in fact, your workday involves more email than ever. While your own business may be ahead of the curve in reducing email overload, businesses in general will send more email in 2015 than they did in 2014 – and then more in 2016 than 2015. To fight back, even the most loquacious literature majors in your office are occasionally sending semi-cryptic shorthand. Even senators aren’t exempt.

There are several hiccups that get particularly pronounced by email – and are part of the reason that so many businesses are looking to move away from email as a primary means of collaboration.

  • The original subject line bears no resemblance to the tangent the thread has taken
  • Cc overload results in an avalanche of easy-to-ignore FYI emails
  • The sender references another email or email thread, requiring the recipient to dig in his/her inbox before responding

But misinterpretation is hardly just an email issue; social media and, yes, even the greatest collaboration tools still create opportunities to be misunderstood. Send a snarky tweet or text and someone replies “ur funny”… are they complimenting or criticizing you? Left unresolved, as we saw in the WSJ example, this can affect interpersonal dynamics – or even, as Key & Peele recently warned, lead to someone brandishing a baseball bat embedded with nails after misinterpreting friendly messages as a challenge to fight.Sarcasm detector

It’s not (entirely) a laughing matter: recipients of written messages correctly separate seriousness from sarcasm only 56% of the time (it’s 73% when the same messages are conveyed in a voice recording). In that Fast Company article, Eric Jaffe recommends using “concrete emotional words” or even – contain your shuddering, readers born prior to the ’90s – emoticons to offset the chance that your recipient isn’t sure whether you are, in fact, excited for your company retreat.

There are a few other easy ways you can keep yourself from electronically treading on the feelings of your coworkers:

Communication isn’t one-size-fits-all

The hard lessons you’ve learned over the years from Facebook can carry over to your business email or even your Central Desktop news feed. Some people can take a joke, some can’t. Some people want you to articulate your points in exceptional nuance, some people want a bite-sized synopsis. You don’t need to cater to the individual whims of every colleague, customer and cousin in your life, but, especially as a manager or someone in a customer-facing role, you should be sensitive to how your communication style is received.

Make it harder to be ignored

If you’re sensitive to e-silence, make sure you are communicating what you expect your recipient(s) to do in response. Be clear and concise. If you’re asking for a bunch of things, consider the power of helpful formatting. “If you’re not doing it already, it should be standard protocol to break out multiple points or questions as numbered items in all email correspondence,” says 99U’s Jocelyn K. Glei.

Adam McKibbin
Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.

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