Emails are one of the most used tools in the office as we spend almost 2.5 hours a day reading and responding to work emails. In personal experience, I spend more time than that as I don't just respond to coworkers but it's also how I communicate with my clients.

5 tips for interpreting work emails

Have you ever received a work email from a coworker that made you feel uneasy, confused or annoyed? Maybe they used a lot of exclamation points, or they didn't reply to your question, or they seemed to be passive-aggressive. If so, you might have wondered what they really meant by their message, and if they had a hidden agenda or a negative attitude towards you.

But before you jump to conclusions and assume the worst, you might want to take a step back and consider some other factors that could influence how you interpret their email. Here are some tips to help you avoid reading too much into your coworker's email and maintain a positive and productive relationship with them.

1. Email doesn't convey tone well

Remember that email is not the best medium for conveying tone and emotion. Unlike face-to-face or phone conversations, email does not have the benefit of vocal cues, facial expressions, body language or context. This means that it can be hard to tell if someone is being sarcastic, joking, friendly or serious. It also means that you might project your own feelings and expectations onto their words and fill in the gaps with your own assumptions.

For example, if you are feeling stressed or insecure about a project, you might perceive a simple "OK" as a sign of disapproval or indifference, when in fact it was just a neutral confirmation.

2. Consider the sender's personality and communication style

Interpreting email tone, even within the context of work emails, can be hard because different people have different ways of expressing themselves through email. Some people are more formal and polite, while others are more casual and direct. Some people use a lot of emojis, punctuation marks and abbreviations, while others stick to plain text. Some people reply quickly and briefly, while others take their time and write longer messages. These differences do not necessarily reflect their attitude or intention towards you, but rather their personal preferences and habits.

Try to understand where they are coming from, and don't judge them based on your own standards. I personally send brief, straight to the point work emails in order to get a message across quickly. I sometimes add some emojis in so it doesn't seem like I'm being mean, or just to add a little bit more character.

3. Ask for clarification if you are unsure or confused

If you receive an email that seems vague, ambiguous, or contradictory, don't hesitate to follow up with the sender and ask them to explain what they meant. This can help you avoid misunderstandings and miscommunication, and show that you care about their input and feedback. You can also use phrases like "I'm not sure I understand what you mean by...", "Can you please elaborate on...", or "Can you give me an example of..." to prompt them to clarify their message.

4. Don't take things personally or react emotionally

If you receive a work email that seems rude, harsh or critical, try not to take it personally or react emotionally. It could be that the sender was having a bad day, or that they were under pressure or in a hurry. It could also be that they were trying to be constructive or helpful, but their tone came across as negative or aggressive. Instead of getting defensive or angry, try to respond calmly and professionally. You can also use phrases like "Thank you for your feedback", "I appreciate your honesty" or "I'm sorry to hear that" to acknowledge their message and show empathy.

5. Choose the right medium for the right message

Sometimes email is not the best way to communicate with your coworker, especially if the topic is sensitive, complex or urgent. In these cases, it might be better to pick up the phone, schedule a video call or meet in person (if possible). This can help you avoid misinterpretation and confusion, and allow you to have a more meaningful and productive conversation. You can also use email as a follow-up tool to summarize the main points and action items from your discussion.

Leverage work emails effectively

Email is a powerful and convenient tool for communication in the workplace, but it also has its limitations and challenges.

Communication with coworkers is important in any workplace and email has become a prevalent tool now that most jobs are remote or hybrid. By following these tips, you can avoid reading too much into your coworker's email and improve your relationship with them.