Don't Use Emotion in Email (Ever!)

We've all had an email conversation explode into conflict - that's because email is a terrible way to communicate emotion. Get-It-Done Guy explores the pitfalls of email.

Stever Robbins
2-minute read


We’ve all been there. Unsatisfied with a relationship (be it romantic or professional), we agonize for months and finally work up the courage to break it off.

We open an email composition window, and dash off an email suggesting how much happier they will be if we go our separate ways. We hit send and head off to the lunchroom for a tasty cup of coffee. We know they’ll understand...then they walk through the door with a chainsaw, having the gall to suggest that our email came across as dismissive and mean! Since they have the chainsaw, they must be right.

The lesson? We used the wrong medium for the wrong message. Don’t try to communicate emotions through email or text.

Email is a great tool to arrange plans. But sending a message with emotional content is courting disaster! Ask any teenager and they’ll tell you: a break-up by text is the worst. But the emotionally charged email doesn’t even have to be in a situation as intense as a break-up. Even making a simple comment about someone’s work, or an issue they feel strongly about, can trigger unexpected chaos.

Emailing emotion is dangerous. Emotion is communicated through voice tone and other non-verbal cues. Those don’t come through in email. When your recipient reads the message, they’ll read the words, but fill in the emotion from their own imagination. And some people have very mean imaginations.

You’re emailing a friend about the dinner they made for you the other night. In your head, you think “Wow! That dinner was great!” In the email you write “The food was really good. Thank you!” But your friend read it in a flat tone of voice. And they think “Good? Only good? I thought the meal was great!” Your compliment comes across as an insult, and your (now former) friend thinks you’re being sardonic and unappreciative. It’s like a game of telephone gone horribly wrong.

(Comedy duo Key and Peele illustrate it best in this video. It includes profanity, however, so be warned!)

While you can’t make hand gestures or eye contact through email, there are still things you can do to mitigate disaster. Use an occasional emoticon, add laughter (“ha!”) or “LOL” in a way that clearly communicates inflection. 

Most times, however, it might be best just to pick up the phone and say what you feel. When you’re talking directly, you can add the voice tone and emotion, so the message comes across just as you intend. No chainsaw required.

Check out more tips on email communication and other productivity tools at quickanddirtytips.com/productivity.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.