Language Blog

4 Quick Tips for Creating Effective Email Messages

Email is forever….and never really gets deleted.  It lurks on servers and can come back at a later time to haunt its creator.  Let’s focus for a moment on the general quality and etiquette of your emails.  Always remember that your email messages are a direct reflection of you; especially to those who may not know you personally and whose positive attention you are looking to gain.  Below are some basics for everyone to have in mind when composing email for business or academic purposes:
  1. Email is not Texting:  “R U” may be a great shortcut for ‘’Are You” but your email reader will not be impressed and might just think you don’t know how to spell.  Likewise, texting language and abbreviations are not universally understood or accepted.   You might not want to add them to a message going to your supervisor or client.  
  2. Add white space to your messages: How many times do you receive  a message that is a daunting block of text and you close it  with the intention of reading it later.  Do you always go back to it?  If you ‘’chunk’’ your messages to make them more visually appealing, they are more likely to be read upon opening.
  3. Think about your intended audience before you add an emoji.  How might it reflect upon your seriousness of purpose if the intended recipient is not a contact you know personally?  Can it diminish your image in that person’s mind?  Taking that moment to think things through before you hit ENTER can make all the difference.
  4. Pay attention to your Subject Line.  Make it clear and compelling.  A  subject line that is too general can land your message in Junk Mail or at the minimum, at a lower priority for opening.

Acronyms and Alphabet Soup

Some years ago, I was teaching an advanced level English class at the corporate office of a foreign bank.  The class was designed to help foreign-born financial professionals to become more comfortable with their American-born clients and to feel more integrated into American language and culture.  Naturally, pronunciation was a big part of the curriculum..  What I learned from this class and others following is the difficulty of understanding  many important things that are not typically covered in a typical English language curriculum.  This true story will explain:

It was break time and the ‘’students’’ and I were gathered around the espresso machine and chatting informally.  One of the lenders was commenting on the policies of the SEC, which he pronounced as “seck.”  He could not understand how the teacher (me), as a native speaker of English, did not understand his reference.  He kept repeating ‘’seck, seck, seck” with growing frustration.  Finally, in desperation, he repeated ‘’
seck’’ one last time, and added “ the Security and Exchange Commission” to further emphasize his reference.  Aha!!!  I could then explain to the student  that we say the letters, rather than make a word from the abbreviation.  My very intelligent student was confused….after all, we say NASA as a word, and OPEC, OSHA, COBRA, and ERISA. Why not SEC?  He was not very happy to hear ‘’because that’s the way we say it.”  

Think about acronyms and how confusing they can be to someone from another language or culture.  There is no reason why some are pronounced as a word and for some, we simply recite the letters (IRS, ACLU, AMA, DOL, aka, etc).  To facilitate clear understanding without creating embarrassment, when communicating with a foreign-born professional, you can make your sentence the tiniest bit longer by saying the whole name of the agency, law, act, department to which you are referring.  Lengthening your sentences a wee bit will increase understanding and reduce cultural embarrassment.

One State + Many Languages = Countless Communication Challenges

The US Census Bureau has released the most comprehensive statistics concerning languages other than English spoken at home by U.S. residents.  Craig McCarthy of the Star Ledger put together the Top Ten Languages spoken in New Jersey:
  1.  Arabic.  Spoken by 59,729
  2.  Hindi (India).  Spoken by 63,342
  3. Polish.  Spoken by 33,346
  4. Gujarati (India).  Spoken by 75,414
  5. Korean.  Spoken by 76,224
  6.  Italian.  Spoken by 78,856
  7.  Tagalog (Philippines).  Spoken by 81,134
  8.  Portuguese.  Spoken by 84,160
  9.  Chinese (all dialects). Spoken by 111,151
  10.  Spanish (all dialects).  Spoken by 1,277,000
Why are these numbers significant?
Armed with these statistics, it’s easy to understand why effective communication in the workplace can be a challenge.  With each language comes corresponding cultural behaviors which can be mystifying to those not born into that culture.  On the other hand, the cultural behaviors of American born residents are equally mystifying to those not born in this country.  

A lack of understanding leads to a lack of trust and loss of credibility, which can negatively affect business.  If confidence and mutual respect erode, safety and production errors can occur.  If the only time these employees speak English is at work, an astounding
1,973,356 residents of New Jersey will have great difficulty in overcoming their language challenges to become comfortable and fluent.   How can an employer be assured that all employees understand essential compliance and safety training and can ask the necessary questions to clarify what they don’t understand?  Assuredly, most won’t ask those questions either for lack of sufficient English ability or fear of losing the respect of supervisors or co-workers.   Is the company protected if only the English speakers receive important training?  I can’t answer that one; I can only ask the question…And you should too!

A quick fix can be arranged through use of bilingual “Facilitators.”  Education levels and cultural considerations often make word-by-word interpretation (spoken) inappropriate.  Similarly, literacy levels might make the cost of translation (documents) irrelevant if they cannot be read.  In many cases, “Facilitation” can address the challenge of communicating essential information across languages.  

One or more bilingual Facilitators work in tandem with your internal trainer or vendor to paraphrase the content of the presentation to deliver it at an appropriate level of understanding to the various cultures represented in your workforce.  Prepared Facilitation allows your limited-English employees to ask relevant and appropriate questions to assure their total understanding of the subject being discussed.  No mutual mystification.  Simple, straightforward, unambiguous understanding .  In any language.  In your workplace.

Misinterpretation is Easy

It’s not hard to fall into a pit of misinterpretation, even among fellow residents of the same country.  See how easy it is by reading the dialog below.  Both speakers are from India, where there are at last 27 known languages.  Both speakers are communicating in English, the national language of India.

Speaker A:  “My grandfather lived for 96 years and he never used glasses.”

Speaker B:  “Yes, I know, some people in my family also drink directly from the bottle.”

The misunderstanding is due to the two meanings we may derive from the same word, a frequent occurrence in English.  What’s missing is an important cue to make the distinction between spectacles/eye wear and glass containers for beverages.  

Both called ‘’glasses.”  Speaker A is talking about longevity and eyesight and the second about drinking habits.   If the first speaker had said “he never WORE glasses,”  the misunderstanding would probably never have occurred.

Has something like that ever happened to you?  Communication coaching increases awareness of  why your listener might be having difficulty understanding you and how to bridge those gaps more easily.