Email Incivility: Don’t Be Rude!

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How many of us consider answering and writing emails to be a large component of our jobs? Email is one of the top communication channels in the workforce today. Unfortunately, we also know that emails sometimes fail at properly relaying our messages. Today, we share some recent research on email incivility and how to avoid hurting those around you.

What is Email Incivility?

Email incivility is simply defined as rudeness through email communication. Disrespectful emails are different from face-to-face rudeness. It’s hard to understand tone via email and you can’t see body language. Thus, it can be less obvious if someone is rude and people’s reactions are more dependent on their perceptions.

Interestingly, researchers have found two different types of email incivility – active and passive – with some different impacts on wellness.

It doesn’t feel great when you receive a rude email from a coworker or client!

Active Email Incivility

When an email sender is actively rude or disrespectful in an email, it’s considered active incivility. For example, someone may send an email with a mean or rude comment or use all caps to yell at the recipient. One study provided a good example of what active incivility looks like:

“I have been very busy putting things together for this project, a lot more than you recently, so be ready to hit it hard this week to catch up on things.”

Yuan, Park, & Sliter (2020)

These actively uncivil emails are generally emotionally charged. They are never fun to receive. However, the emails are obviously rude and, thus, easy to interpret.

Passive Email Incivility

In addition to active incivility, emails can also be passively uncivil. These emails are missing respectful and considerate language. But, they aren’t overtly rude. In one study, a participant described a passive email:

“I didn’t get an email [after asking to reschedule a meeting]—it was the lack of response that I consider rude. . . . It has now been 8 days, no response (and the time for having the meeting/discussing the decision is over).”

Yuan, Park, & Sliter (2020)

In other words, a lack of response, can easily be viewed as rude. Other passive emails might be ones with a short and insufficient response or ignoring certain requests in the previous email. Passive incivility is more ambiguous and harder to understand. It’s not always clear if the person was trying to be rude or were just in a hurry.

Take a second to re-read your email before you hit send to make sure you aren’t accidentally being rude!

Impact and What To Do!

Unfortunately, email incivility has negative impacts on employees. Employees that experience incivility via email tend to be less satisfied in their jobs, less committed to their companies, and more likely to want to quit. In addition, these employees tend to have less energy, lower engagement, and worse performance. Interestingly, passive incivility is also linked to insomnia and more negative emotions. Overall, this type of behavior can have major impacts on employee wellness. Just like with other rude behavior, rude email behavior can actually hurt employees – both personally and with their work.

So, what can we do? It’s pretty easy! We provided some tips here before. First, if you are frustrated or have a negative topic to discuss, consider picking up the phone! It can be easy to misconstrue emails! So, if it’s sensitive and important, take the extra time for a call. Second, re-read your emails! Check to see if there’s anything that can be perceived as rude or disrespectful. Third, if you don’t have time to respond fully, make sure you are still being polite! Instead of saying “Got it” and moving on, consider taking a few more seconds to clarify. Say “Thanks for sending this along! I will review in more detail as soon as I can.”

Finally, if you are a leader, consider creating rules of email etiquette. Create a culture where emails are appropriate and respectful. Set expectations around how quickly employees need to respond to each other. Ensure people communicate their preferences and tendencies to avoid misinterpretation. And, model good email behavior with your team members!

Good luck out there! We hope you will be more mindful of your emails and help build a better email culture.

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