Email Enigma: When the Boss’s Reply Seems Cryptic

Email Enigma: When the Boss’s Reply Seems Cryptic
Photo credit:Wall Street Journal

How many times have you been confused or bothered by a short email response from a co-worker or your boss? Quick communication has become the norm and email inboxes fill up quickly. Sometimes it can be hard when you're looking for guidance to figure out what a one word reply means. Some bosses simply don't have much time to answer all their emails, while some employees have a hard time getting straight to the point in writing them.

Wall Street Journal columnist, Sue Shellenbarger, tells the story of consultant, Jill Campen, who sent her boss what she considered to be a thoughtful email requesting his approval on a presentation. When he simply replied “done,” she wasn’t sure how to interpret his response and was bothered by it. By calling her boss, Campen found out that he trusted her judgement and had quickly approved her request. On a busy day when he typically gets 100-150 emails, he thought a short reply was enough. He didn’t realize she would be upset by it.

Employees in the corporate world receive an average of 121 emails every day, and market research firm the Radicati Group says that number is expected to continue rising. Some bosses even make a conscious decision not to reply to every email. “If subject lines aren’t specific enough, they’re more likely to be skipped over, says corporate writing instructor Jack Appleman. He recommends getting right to the point by using subjects like, “Report: Approval needed by 5 p.m.” That’s more effective then sending a lengthy email and waiting until the very end of the message to make the real request.

Writing and corporate communication coach, Mike Conol, says it can be frustrating when email threads steer away from the original subject line, so it’s best to stay focused on the original topic or start a new thread.

Shellenbarger concludes her column by reminding us how important it is to understand the difference between your own communication style and others you work with, so that messages don’t get misinterpreted. And remember, as Jill Campen discovered, picking up the phone and actually talking to the person can help to clear up any email misunderstandings and ensure that your message is received loud and clear.

The Wall Street Journal, 3/11/14

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