What does “polite written communication” mean to you? To one of my clients it means using elaborate language. That’s because in her culture flowery prose is a way of expressing respect. She tells me that she struggles when she tries to write more directly because she worries she will seem too blunt, and cause offense.
I’ve explained to my client that there is a way to communicate clearly without seeming rude, and straightforward language doesn’t mean there isn’t careful thought at work. In fact, I think long and hard about the wording of every email message I send. I want to be absolutely clear about whatever I am trying to say. But, at the same time, I certainly don’t want to offend whomever is on the receiving end. Really, it’s a quest to find the balance between the clarity of the message and the appropriate tone.
George Bernard Shaw once said, “The secret to success is to offend the greatest number of people.” Amusing as the quote is, it probably isn’t the best approach to 21st century business! So, instead of following Shaw’s lead, have a look at the following tips for some guidance in how to write clearly without causing offense.
The Language Lab’s tips on how not to offend
1. Careful word choice
Not: “Your latest demand will be met by the agreed-upon date.”
But: “Your recent request will be met by the agreed-upon date.”
2. Correct grammar use
Not: “There has been thousands of books written about subject and verb agreement.”
But: “There have been thousands of books written about subject and verb agreement.”
3. Positive, not negative
Not: “We can’t respond to your request until Friday.”
But: “We will be happy to respond to your request on Friday.”
4. Simplicity, not complexity
Not: “As stated heretofore, your deadline will be met according to the terms and conditions delineated in our previous emails on the subject.”
But: “We are pleased to meet your deadline on the date agreed upon in our last email exchange.”
5. Active, not passive
Not: “Mistakes were made.”
But: “We made mistakes.”
6. Direct, but thoughtful
Not: “Whether it is convenient or not I still need to get the information from you right away.”
But: “I realize this request may come at a difficult time; however it would be extremely helpful if you could share the information at your earliest convenience.”
You may have noticed there is a common thread running through all of the above tips: they put the recipient of the message first. Think of the person receiving the message. Are you communicating to that person clearly, in a friendly and honest manner? If you are, you can rest assured your communications will not offend. After all, you probably don’t want to see what “success” might look like if you follow that piece of advice from George Bernard Shaw!
If you have any questions about how you can improve the clarity and tone of your business communications, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.