Before You Respond to that Email, Pause

Someone sends you an email message or a text, and you’re unsure how to respond.  It’s about a complex negotiation, or a politically sensitive situation. Or maybe it’s just from a person who unnerves you.

For a moment, you pause. But for most of us, most of the time, that pause doesn’t last long. Instead we react, feeling the need to immediately craft a response. And often we then hit “send” without fully thinking. The result: an awkward or incomplete message that causes the recipient to pause, then react, often starting or continuing a cycle of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Yes, people today expect and want an instantaneous reply to any message. We often accommodate them because delay feels like a violation of modern-day social norms.

But there are many times when we should not immediately reply.  And the truth is, we usually know them when they come. That’s what that initial pause is about. The key is to heed it.

There is a simple two-step method to making the pause work for you. First, buy yourself some time to think. Second, follow the four simple C’s of effective communication that help determine how best to respond in terms of the context, content, channel, and contact.

Buying Time

There are a few practical ways to buy some time when you get a message where your gut tells you not to respond or where you are not sure how to respond.

  • The non-response response – “Got your message.”  This is meant to serve as an acknowledgement but really is only filler. It may aggravate someone in the midst of a negotiation or other serious exchange.
  • The expectation-setter – “Got it.  Lot on the plate today, I’ll get back to you tomorrow afternoon.”  This is often a good middle ground.  It provides an immediate response of acknowledgment and resets the timetable.
  • The confident pause – Don’t respond. Really. Just don’t. Pausing for at least 24 hours is a pretty good rule of thumb. Not responding is its own kind of response, which can often work to your advantage.

Once you’ve bought yourself some time, you soak in the information from the message and think of what the best response might be. There are four C’s that have served as a useful checklist for me to use during that pause time before I respond to a difficult message: context, content, contact, and channel.

The Four C’s of Effective Communication

  1. Context – Having the right situational context is key. Who are the relevant parties to the conversation or discussion thread? Are there relationships and inter-dependencies and previous conversations that I’m not aware of?  Do I fully understand what is at stake?  In the multi-party transactions in which we often get involved in venture capital, sending out a quick response to even a simple query can backfire if the timing is wrong or the information out of date. Sometimes you can even answer a specific question in a technically correct manner, but be practically incorrect because you’ve failed to appreciate the bigger picture.
  2. Content – The message needs to be delivered in clear manner with the right tone and style for the occasion. Having the right content means checking facts and being consistent with past discussion threads. If there is one thing that I have seen kill a negotiation or productive progress in a discussion, it is inconsistency of message, which both confuses others and diminishes your credibility. Get the facts and your message points straight in your head, then focus on delivering them in the clearest, most understandable, most consistent manner possible.
  3. Contact – Are you even the right person to respond? It happens often: we are asked something and fail to realize that we might not be the best person to respond. Consider if someone else might be more knowledgeable or better suited in style to respond, especially in a crisis (where it is usually best to have only a single point of contact). There is a reason why terrorist and hostage negotiations are not conducted over Google Docs. And even in an open and collaborative everyday work culture, there are many times when deferring to someone else is the right answer.  Also, consider if the person on the other side who is asking a question or provoking a discussion is the right contact person as well. And always — always! — be wary of “reply all” and judicious with the cc function.
  4. Channel – Just because someone contacts you by email or text does not mean you have to respond by that channel. Email and text lend themselves to misinterpretation and misunderstanding. They are often likelier to prolong or inflame a debate than to resolve it. As I’ve written before, sometimes it’s much more effective and efficient just to pick up the phone or meet up in person. Email is great for transmitting factual information — a spreadsheet of a business model, for example, or a summary of a prior discussion. But when there are issues to resolve, talking usually works better.

As the pressure grows to respond quickly, the value of pausing and thinking is growing too. We all should work toward developing better, saner norms of communication amid the explosion of channels available to us. But that will take time and thought to get right.  In the interim, we just need to stop being so damned trigger-happy with that send button.

Mind Your Email Manners: In business communication, it is important to observe some etiquette rules

Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, at her Lake Worth, Fla., home, says that drafting business emails is a craft that should prioritize a professional tone.
Business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, at her Lake Worth, Fla., home, says that drafting business emails is a craft that should prioritize a professional tone.
PHOTO: JOSH RITCHIE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

So much business communication takes place electronically that people tend to dash off emails without thinking about them. But even with quick messages, it is important to observe some etiquette rules.

“Email is often the first impression that others get of you,” says etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, who has done executive coaching and leadership training programs for various Fortune 500 companies.

Ms. Whitmore believes one thing above all: “Err on the side of being more formal.” When composing an email, she never starts without a salutation. “An email deserves a greeting,” says Ms. Whitmore. “We’ve gotten so lax in the way that we communicate that we’re apt to forget good habits.”

If the recipient is someone Ms. Whitmore has never met before, she’ll likely begin with “Dear.” Generally, though, she will use “Hello.” After that first email exchange, though, Ms. Whitmore takes her cues from the person she is emailing. “If the person says ‘Hi’ to me, I will say ‘Hi’ back,” she says. “I will mirror the person I am emailing.”

Timing is important. “The rule is you should reply to an email within 24 hours,” Ms. Whitmore says. “Even if you don’t have an answer for someone, reply anyway and say ‘Thank you for your email—I’ll get back to you by such and such a date.’ ”

Ms. Whitmore, who has written two books, “Poised for Success” and “Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work,” likes to start the body of her email with a short, thoughtful sentence. “If you haven’t spoken to the person in a while, it’s best to put some little nicety in the front, like ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘I hope you had a great holiday,’” she says.

After that, Ms. Whitmore tries to be as direct and succinct as possible. “I always keep my sentences very short,” says Ms. Whitmore, who is also the founder of The Protocol School of Palm Beach in Florida. “People have hundreds of email to answer in a day. The chances that somebody will respond increase when the email is shorter.”

Ms. Whitmore likes to keep her paragraphs short as well. With especially busy people, bullet points are a good idea. “I work with a lot of executives who are very busy, and they just want the facts,” she says. “I almost set it up like a memo so it’s easier to read.”

While it can be easy to fall into a casual tone, especially if you’re tapping out your email on a portable device, Ms. Whitmore cautions against it. “Remember that emails can be forwarded, they can be duplicated,” she says. “Keep emotions out of it, and keep it simple.”

At the same time, Ms. Whitmore is careful not to be come across as curt. “No one can see your facial expressions or hear your tone of voice, so the only way they’re gauging your emotions is the tone that you use in that email,” she says. So, while she tries to keep things short, she also will add words such as “I’m happy to do it” to convey a little warmth.

Some people try to convey emotions in emails with happy or sad faces such as 🙂 or with extra exclamation points. Ms. Whitmore says she does use such measures when she thinks it is appropriate—“but never when I’m trying to make a good first impression,” she says. “If I’ve known the person a long time and we’ve developed a friendship, I find it more appropriate to be less formal. But when in doubt, leave it out.”

A model business email, annotated with tips for crafting emails that hit the right business etiquette notes and maintain a professional tone.ENLARGE
A model business email, annotated with tips for crafting emails that hit the right business etiquette notes and maintain a professional tone.

A model business emailENLARGE
A model business email PHOTO: JOSH RITCHIE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.

“Text speak” is a strict don’t, Ms. Whitmore says. Acronyms such as “lol” “don’t have a place in a business email,” she says. “Even if you’ve just graduated from college and you’re now out in the workforce, remember that a lot of your clients may be baby boomers. It’s important for you to stay professional.”

More people are writing messages in all lowercase letters. Ms. Whitmore likes to reserve that for personal emails.

Make sure nothing is misspelled. “It can reflect poorly on your company if you send a poorly composed email,” Ms. Whitmore says. “People may think, ‘This person handles the balance sheets for my company and he can’t even spell there?’ So read and reread it before sending it.”

Also, be sure to put in a clear subject line at the top—something busy professionals prize. “If you don’t have anything in the subject line at all, you can’t figure out if it’s something you want to open right away,” Ms. Whitmore says.

Signing off carries potential pitfalls as well. “If I don’t know the person well, the safest way to sign off is ‘Best regards,’” Ms. Whitmore says. “Kind regards” and “Warmest regards” convey formality with just a little more affection, she adds. “Best” is commonly used and works for most situations, but if Ms. Whitmore feels a more formal tone is called for, she’ll use “Sincerely,” which she notes is “a little more distant.”

A definite no: “xoxo,” which should only be reserved for best friends or “if I really, really love somebody,” Ms. Whitmore says.

A signature tag line beneath your signoff is a must, says Ms. Whitmore. This could list your name, your company’s name, your phone number and perhaps your website and one social-media handle.

“Don’t put unnecessary things in your signature like quotes or religious sayings,” Ms. Whitmore says. Similarly, photos in signature lines may not come off well. “Not everybody needs to see your picture,” she says.

The Utensil Etiquette Your Parents Never Taught You

Dining utensils seem like they should be pretty straightforward. What’s more simple than a knife and fork? Okay, maybe a spoon. But like many things in life, there’s more to utensils than meets the eye. In fact, these daily instruments carry a lot more weight than just the food you’re shoveling. They’re symbolic tools that can signal when you’re finished with a meal or if you’re still working; they can disclose where you’re from, depending on how you hold them; and they can even cause hashtag-inducing media meltdowns (read: Forkgate, when Mayor of New York Bill DeBlasio ate pizza with a fork and knife.)

If you’re not privy to proper utensil etiquette, it’s time to study up, lest you accidentally initiate a spoon-apocolypse of your own. Customs vary across the globe. For example, in Thailand and Laos, it’s impolite to put your fork in your mouth. You should use your fork to shovel food into your spoon, and then put the spoon in your mouth. In Chile, you should always, in all instances, eat with a utensil and never eat with your hands.

Here in the U.S., not much is taboo — we can put all of our utensils in our mouths, and yes, we can eat with our hands. (How else would we get down with chicken wings?) The way we rest our fork and knife on our plates, however, is of utmost importance. If you’re not up to speed already, here’s what you need to know:

According to etiquette and personal branding expert Mindy Lockard, the way to signal that you’re resting, — meaning you haven’t finished eating — is to lay your fork and knife separate but parallel on your plate. Your knife should be on the right side of your plate, and your fork tines should be facing up. An alternative signal for “resting” is placing the knife and fork in an X on your plate.

To signal that you’re finished eating, your fork and knife should be left together and parallel, at the 11 o’clock position, fork tines still up.

Continental or European style for leaving your fork and knife is similar, but your fork tines should be facing down, not up. The only difference between the two is the resting position. According to continental convention, your fork and knife should be crossed like an X, not parallel.

For a visual guide and for more dining etiquette beyond the knife and fork, check out the infographic below. Click on the image for a closer look.

dining etiquette infographic
visual.ly