Last week I met my boss face-to-face for the first time. I've 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: 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 will 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 am making peanuts.”
Or something like that. It is not a direct quote because I didn't save his emails. In fact, based on the messages he sent to me, I thought I would 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 the airport last week, I had 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 (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. (Or their most desperate guesses. If I was thinking of dating my editor, perhaps I would have imagined him as really good looking.)
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 only 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, an investment banker, is working on a large client's overseas business deal that's been widely publicized in the business press. He received a message with the subject line, URGENT!!, from a staff administrator. So he opened it nervously, thinking the deal had collapsed. It turned out that the administrator needed to know how much of his American Express bill would be charged to this particular client.
Now this company is so large it could pay every AMEX customer's bill for several months without severely impacting 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 by the end of the day today.”
Inappropriate e-mail addresses comprise another harmful nuance category. The address firstname.lastname@example.org is ridiculous in business. Only use a joint address for business correspondence if you and your spouse/partner are applying for a job you'll do together. College career advisor Julia Overton-Healy of Mansfield, Pa., [what college, why mention her out of the blue?] has seen it all: keggerboy and even youwantapieceofme. Surely if you are reading this column you are beyond keggerboy. But analyze your e-mail address critically, paying heed to both sides of the @: email@example.com is not an improvement over firstname.lastname@example.org. .
E-mail nuances can betray you in the halls of corporate America as easily as verbal nuances. 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 mine.