Email Mirroring: to Emoticon or Not To Emoticon?

Lean in. Lower voice. Get louder. Cross your legs. Over the course of a conversation, we mirror the other person’s behavior without even thinking about it. These cues signal that we’re on the same page, that we’re communing. It helps us bond, kind of like a contagious yawn.

But how does one commune in this way when most of our work conversations happen over email and chat? Especially when working remotely with colleagues, we need to develop a new layer of communication signals to replace our usual arm crossing and emphatic nodding.

We already do this. You have an email “voice,” and so does everybody else. You notice it especially when someone’s email is abrupt, or extra effusive.

What you’re saying and how you’re saying it

We infuse “body language” into our emails in three ways: format, length, and tone. Do you always include a greeting and sign-off? Do you use whole sentences, or phrases? Are your emails short, or verbose? Do you say “thanks,” or “thanks!”?

We unwittingly tack on extra meaning when we read emails. Think back to the last time you received a one-liner. Unless it was either “You rock!” or okaying sandwiches for lunch, it sounded rude to you, right? No hello?! No “thanks”? What else do you “hear” when you read emails from your colleagues, your boss, your clients? Is there a “please” in there? Is it condescending, frustrated, or polite? (Hint: it’s rarely just polite!) Can you count the number of exclamation points and smiley faces?

Look, we’re bonding!

Now that you’re aware of how you’re coming across in emails, you can wield that into better communication with your colleagues and clients. Let’s start simple: don’t overdo it on the exclamation points if your newest client only gives you terse all-business replies. But oh wait, was that a smiley face in your favorite customer’s response? Lob one back. Maybe even a wink that says “you know how it is!” if you’re feeling cheeky.

You can mirror your recipient by keeping your emails short and to the point if they always seem to be in a rush. If the emails you receive are warm and familiar, feel free to loosen the formality of your language.

Here’s a scale:

  • Frigid: “No. Will email.”
  • Formal: “”Dear Sir, Please find attached the document you requested.”
  • Respectfully human: “Here’s the document, as promised. Let us know if you have any questions.”
  • Warmer human: “Here’s the document, as promised. Let us know if you have any questions!”
  • Familiar human: “Here’s the document I mentioned. Hope you had a great time in the Bahamas!”
  • Too familiar: “Here’s that document, talk soon!!!! xo” (don’t do this)

Adjusting the tone, length, and structure of your emails is just one way to mirror colleagues when most of our conversation is funneled through a computer screen. And just like in the physical world, you’ll naturally find that you speak one way to one person and another to the next.

This post was originally written in 2014 and published in January 2015. Here’s why!