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How to write a polite email, according to an etiquette expert

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisApril 6, 2020

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If you were rooting for the death of email with the rise of video calling, well, we’re not there yet, guys. Text is still a major mode of communication, and that can be tricky when it comes to delivering (more) unpleasant news or airing grievances that would sound kinder IRL. In a high stress global climate where you might have to deliver some strongly worded intel, knowing how to write a polite email is more important than ever.

Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, recommends prefacing any sensitive text correspondence with a simple phrase: “Please default to kindness before reading this.”

Love it, right? The idea is that we want to extend compassion at the forefront of some hard truths. That way, you get your message across, you do it in away that doesn’t encourage aggression, and you try to extend empathy to what the other could be going through right now. The other day on Google Trends I saw that people are searching the lyrics to “Mad World,” like we’re all going through it right now. But you never know exactly what situation a person is going through, so severity needs to be softened.

“We cannot hear the person’s tone of voice, or see the expressions on their face,” says Gottsman. “And while that’s always the case, not just during this pandemic, we’re living in a different world right now. We’re responding to multiple texts, we’re working, we have a challenging life of taking care of children or taking care of elderly parents from afar. When you have to deliver a message and you can’t get it to them right away but they need to hear it, it might be straightforward, and straightforward often comes across as unkind. So that’s why we say ‘default to kindness.'”

The conflict is that with digital correspondence, the biggest thing lost is inflection. It’s why we compulsively add exclamation points to convey good will and unwarranted enthusiasm: positive or not, text-based communication can fall flat. When you state upfront the tone is meant in kindness, it’ll make the rest of the message go over smoothly.

For Gottsman, simple and clean is the general game when you’re composing. So if you have to deliver bad news to a client or relay to your jerkwad professor that his curriculum makes no effing sense, breathe deeply and take a mindful minute. Then use the phrase to soften whatever your message is.

Consider something like: “Please default to kindness before you read this, but I’m really concerned about the level of performance right now.” Or on the flip side: “Please default to kindness before you read this, but that deadline is unmanageable when I’m on the verge of hospitalization.” Or even: “Please default to kindness before you read this, but I absolutely need you to refund me $456 for a trip from Cancun that I don’t need because I am literally at my parent’s house in New Jersey.” Or whatever, you know?

Gottsman also stresses brevity and directness. Across the board, nobody has time for gigantic walls of text, especially if you’re dealing with work, but if you’re talking to a superior, especially one who’s regularly a corporate tight-ass, they just want the CliffsNotes.

It’s about coming across as sincere, letting someone know your reference point as soon as possible, being compassionate to their response, but not feeling uncomfortable about being straightforward.

“The message here is that we all have to give ourselves a break, and we all need to give others the benefit of the doubt,” says Gottsman. “We’re all in this together. We’re all in uncertain times, and we’re all doing the very best that we can.”

If you need to set up healthy boundaries for yourself, this is how to RSVP no to the Zoom Party, and survive social distancing as an introvert.

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