E-mail intelligence: Watch how you come across in messages

I remember when I met my boss face to face for the first time. I'd been working with him for more than two years– via phone and e-mail. I had never seen him, but I had a general idea of what he looked like because over time he had tossed me clues about his appearance. At least I thought he had.

I spend a lot of time writing about appearance and its impact on career success. I've been known to say things like this: People judge you in the first three seconds they see you; good-looking people make more money than unattractive people; going to the gym regularly improves your chances of success.

Invariably, in response to such columns, my boss would send me a self-deprecating e-mail. He's a funny guy, and to his credit, his e-mails about his looks are usually funny. For example, in reference to the column about good-looking people getting raises, he wrote: "Now I understand why I’m making peanuts."

That’s not a direct quote– I don't save his e-mails. In fact, based on the messages he sent to me, I thought I’d be getting a new boss shortly because he implied he was so incredibly obese that he might die of a heart attack any day. My mental image of him grew more extreme with the arrival of each successive e-mail.

By the time I met my boss at lunch, I’d begun to envision him as so enormous that he needed a special chair. So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself greeting someone who is physically fit and who (it turns out) plays tennis regularly. Clearly, he's not obese; he's just funny.

He was sending humorous e-mails that I was misreading. This is what happens in e-mail relationships: People create pictures based on their best guesses.

The lesson here? Be careful what you write about yourself to someone who never sees you. This goes beyond discussing your looks.

For example, suppose you're an over-achiever, but you make jokes about slacking off. Your recipient doesn't know that you work your tail off and you're being self-deprecating. There's a fine line between being self-deprecating and being revealing, and it isn't visible in e-mail.

As soon as I realized that I had been misreading my editor's e-mails, I started discovering other e-mail nuance problems.

My brother received a message from a staff administrator with the subject line, URGENT!! So he opened it nervously, worried about what it meant. It turned out that the administrator needed to know how much of his American Express bill would be charged to a particular client.

This company is so large it could pay all customers’ Amex bills for several months without severely affecting its bottom line. Obviously, the client wasn’t worried about my brother's charges. And my brother wasn't in trouble. But by using the URGENT!! subject line, the administrator inadvertently tipped every one off that she was in trouble for not getting this information sooner. A more astute way for her to address her problem would have been to say in her e-mail, "Please get back to me with this information today."

Inappropriate e-mail addresses constitute another harmful nuance category. Hideous e-mail addresses people have seen on resumes: keggerboy and even youwantapieceofme.

Now, if you’re reading this column, you’re obviously beyond using keggerboy on a resume. But analyze your e-mail address critically, paying heed to both sides of the @– keggerboy@aol.com is just as bad as bill@keggerboy.com.

E-mail nuances can betray you as easily as verbal nuances in the halls of corporate America. They can turn otherwise well-crafted communications into undermining menaces. Even worse, your seemingly clever e-mails may become a company joke and end up serving as fodder for columns like this.
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Penelope Trunk has started a few companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but now she's too busy with other things to write more columns.