7 Types of Emails You Shouldn't Take Personally

Do you ruminate over emails?

Posted Sep 27, 2018

One of the things I've noticed is that I'm more likely to ruminate over emails I've received than anything else.  Emails are a common trigger for rumination because so many context cues are missing.  These are seven examples of when you might find yourself feeling anxious over email, and why you perhaps should stress less.

1.  The delayed or absent response.

There are many neutral (or even positive) reasons why someone might be slow in responding to you. For example:

  • The person sees your email as important and wants to give a detailed or thoughtful response, so they deal with their less important "quick" replies first.
  • The person opens your email when they're on the go and then forgets to get back to it.
  • The person is waiting for additional information or a response from a third person before they answer you.
  • The person is thinking over what you said.
  • The person is annoyed but not with you.  For example, they've been dealing with email all day and can't bear writing another one. Or, you've pushed a button that relates to some other issue. For example, I had a situation recently where someone asked me if I'd consider changing my mind.  It wasn't unreasonable but, at the time, I was feeling irritated with someone else for not respecting a boundary I'd attempted to set.  I didn't want my annoyance to spill over in my response, so I delayed replying.
  • In addition to these common reasons, there can be quite random ones too.  Another example — a journalist recently sent me the link to an article I had contributed to.  It was very nicely done so I planned to tweet it, but the app I use for scheduling tweets was down for maintenance when I was trying to do that.  By the time I got back to trying again, it was four days later.  It would've been wrong to assume I didn't like the article, but someone prone to personalizing might've thought that.

Take home message: You'll often never know why getting a response takes awhile. Don't jump to the conclusion it means the person is annoyed or doesn't care.

2. The less effusive than usual response.

If someone typically communicates with lots of smiley faces and exclamation points, try not to read anything into the absence of these.  It can mean absolutely nothing.  Since you can't know for sure what it means, it doesn't make sense to stress out about it.

3. The short response.

Some people habitually write very short emails.  Other people might alternate between chatty and to the point.  They might be replying quickly on their way out the door, or some other scenario.  Similar to above, it doesn't necessarily mean anything.

4. The formal response.

Sometimes you might receive an email that's more formal in tone than you expected.  This may just be the writer's style.  It could indicate that the writer wants to maintain a degree of formal distance in their relationship with you, which again you shouldn't take excessively personally.  Keeping a degree of formality may just be the way they prefer to work, even if you tend to be warmer and more friendly in your professional relationships. 

Another reason behind formal emails can be when someone is trying to create a paper trail of communication.  There can be many reasons people do this. It may be related to their past experiences; the expectations of their boss, organization, or profession; or to assist their own memory.  Try not to automatically jump to the conclusion that their behavior is personal to you.

5. The "no" response.

Whether people say yes or no to requests is partly determined by the request, but is also determined by a bunch of other factors.  For example, when people write asking me to do something, how they phrase their request is important but it's not the only thing.  My response is also determined by factors like what my childcare situation is at the time, or how many things I'm behind with.

Take home message: Think about the reasons you say yes or no to requests. Recognize that timing is a factor, and don't get overly discouraged by "no" responses.  Phrase your requests as persuasively as possible (that is, in the way that makes it easiest for the other person to say yes), but recognize that this is all you have control over.

6. The response with typos.

There are three possible cognitive-emotional responses to receiving an email that contains typos.

(a). You don't read anything into it.  People make mistakes.

(b).  You judge the sender negatively.  If they're confusing words like "their" and "there," maybe they're not very smart?

(c). You interpret it is as a sign that the other person doesn't care much about you or your request.  You think they didn't care enough to proofread or be diligent while writing.

Both (b) and (c) can cause you to be prematurely dismissive of a potentially fruitful relationship. 

Take home message: Think about times you've realized you've made small mistakes in emails and been mortified about it.  Recognize that it's usually just a sign of being distracted.  Give the typo-maker the benefit of the doubt.  If other evidence points to the person being smart/caring, don't write them off as not smart or not caring because of the odd typo.

7. The persistent emailer.

Reminder emails are a polarizing topic.  Some people (myself included) generally find them useful.  It's common for emails to slip my mind.  Also, I'm self-employed and the only person I have to motivate me is me.  Therefore I find it quite useful to get emails asking "any updates?" when I've been slow in getting back to someone.   However, other people interpret reminders a completely different way.  You might find yourself feeling harassed, or assume the person doing the reminding is very irritated with you.  If the person who is bugging you likes getting reminders themselves, they might assume other people feel the same way and that they're being helpful!   

Take home message:  If you know you're a generally conscientious person, consider whether it would be less stressful if you chose to view receiving occasional reminders as a gentle nudge in a busy world, rather than as criticism.