Rather than reams of rules and teaching women to agonise over every email, it’s much better for everyone, regardless of their gender, to be able to write clearly while also showing personality, argues Meg Roberts from language and behaviour consultancy Schwa.
We’ve all been there: half five on a weekday. You’ve got fish fingers to put on, or a glass of wine to get to. Just one more email to send and you’ll be done for the day. Hi John, just quickly checking in on… no. Too fluffy: didn’t you read somewhere that ‘just’ makes you sound less confident? John, can I get this by 9am tomorrow? Hmm, too harsh: you don’t want to seem rude. Hey John [wave emoji] – wait: is it unprofessional to use emojis at work?
So it goes and so it goes, until you happen to glance clockwards. Half an hour’s gone by, you’re late finishing work and worse, you still haven’t hit ‘send’.
A lot of us do this, and who can blame us?
The media have been telling women for years that they’re writing wrong. If we want to be taken seriously, we’re told to stop using phrases like no worries if not (too timid), emojis and exclamation marks (too peppy), and qualifiers like I think (too hesitant).
We’re told we’re undermining ourselves. We don’t seem confident enough. And really, is that any surprise? Who can come across as confident when they have reams of writing rules to remember?
It’s not just personality policing: it’s a personality drain
I’m not saying there isn’t a confidence gap in the workplace, or that self-awareness is a bad thing – quite the opposite. But these female email rules pose the same problem as all ‘Lean In’ feminism: they put the onus on the individual to adapt to a sexist system (instead of encouraging us to build systems that appreciate individuality).
And in practical terms, it’s a time vacuum. If you’re wondering why you’re regularly working into the evening, set a timer and record how much of the day you spend drafting and redrafting emails. You’ll soon see where the hours are slipping away to.
So how do you put your point across without quite so much pondering?
We don’t need specific women’s writing advice; it’s the same as all writing advice.
– Spend a few minutes planning. Structured thinking upfront stops us overthinking as we draft: what do you need this person to know? Is there something you need them to do? How do you want the message to feel?
– Get to the point. Most of us aren’t reading other people’s emails and thinking ‘well, I wouldn’t have put it like that…’ They’re probably just scanning for your main point – so put it in your first line, or better still, the subject.
– Read it out loud before it leaves your outbox. Write what comes naturally, then use this as a check. If you wouldn’t say it face to face to this person, are you being authentic enough?
To put it bluntly, nobody’s worrying about how you’re coming across except you. And besides, we’re all kaleidoscopes: confident, considerate, assertive, easy going. We don’t need to choose between these things in our emails. The more comfortable we get with showing all shades of ourselves, the quicker we’ll get at hitting ‘send’.
*Meg Roberts is a creative director of language and behaviour consultancy Schwa.