There are small ways that good people can damage their reputation and social capital with their communication. The obvious culprits of bad grammar, typos, spelling errors, or too much text are of course important to avoid. But there are a few other communication habits that can hurt just as much but get little attention.
All of these habits share in common a lack of clarity, resolve, and what Napoleon Hill would call definiteness of purpose. They signal doubt, weakness, a divided mind, and leave the recipient with ambiguity.
The “I’m not sure if I’m serious” sentence ending
I’ve been seeing a lot of “haha” and “lol” these days creeping into everything from Facebook comments to professional email exchanges. I’m not a language purist nor do I espouse formal writing over a laid back and conversational approach. The problem with ending sentences with “lolz” or some other silly word is not that it’s too conversational, it’s that it’s bad conversation.
I’ve had several email or text exchanges like this.
Me: How did the interview go?
Young person: Went really well I think, though I think I struggled a little on the first question. haha.
If this were a verbal conversation the “haha” would be equally uncomfortable. I imagine someone looking down at their shoes with a muffled laugh. What does it mean? Did you struggle or not? Why hedge your clearly stated opinion with a “haha”? Someone who gives a sheepish chuckle after everything they say comes across as lacking confidence and doubting their own words. Say what you want to say. It can be serious, or controversial, or funny, but just say it and don’t back away from it with a vague textual giggle.
The indecisive meeting time
Person wanting a phone call or meeting: Hey, I’d love to talk for 20 minutes about my project with you. Would you be up for it?
Me: Sure. I’m flexible anytime after 11 AM on Weds and Thurs next week. Pick a time and send me an invite.
Person: Cool. I’m around both of those times and free all day. Give me a call.
This one makes me damn near apoplectic. Email exchanges aren’t free. Neither is calendar carving and scheduling. I clearly gave two windows of time and specifically asked for one 20 minute slot to be chosen. Why didn’t you just send me a specific time (preferably as a calendar invite)? And what does it mean, “I’m free all day for a call”? Really? You will literally pick up and answer no matter when I call? You won’t be in the bathroom at all that day, or on the phone with anyone else? I know you won’t actually be free every minute, and if I call and you don’t pick up, now we’ve got to start the scheduling process all over again.
Pick a time. Give it to me. Stick to it.
The response to immaterial items while ignoring the main question
A good rule of thumb is to not make more than one “ask” in a single communication or what you really want could get overlooked. It seems even an email with single ask can fail to communicate the main point if you’re sending it to a vague communicator. I’ve learned to eliminate as much small talk or bits of detail from emails as possible. Not just because it saves me time, but because some people will respond to things that demand no response and seemingly forget about the important part.
Me: Sorry for the late response, I was out of the country for my anniversary. I agree with your assessment of the article and I would just add that it needs a tighter opening. What do you think is the main point you’re trying to drive home?
Discombobulated communicator: Oh wow, that sounds really cool! Where did you travel? Hope it was warmer than the weather we’ve been having here lol!
No! I am not emailing you about my travels or the weather. I’m email about the article you’re working on. Was this a quick, social response while you think things over to give me a more in depth response to my actual question later? If so, why didn’t you tell me that? Am I supposed to remove this email from my inbox and move on, or do I need to respond to your non-response and re-ask the question?
Find the core reason for my communication and respond to that before thinking about anything else.
The failure to switch methods
Sometimes I get messages via Facebook or LinkedIn. Typically, my first response includes my email address with an explicit ask that we move the conversation to email. This ask alone ends many conversations. I’m not sure why, but a lot of people’s desire to get their question answered is so weak that they won’t even endure the cost of switching to email. Why ask it in the first place?
Worse still is the person who responds “OK” or doesn’t respond at all, then proceeds to lay out the entire discussion on the platform I just asked to move away from. I’ve asked three times in some threads and still had the request ignored. Some people even go so far as to call me unannounced and unscheduled (telephone is my absolute least favorite form of communication) even after I’ve told them explicitly in past conversations that I always prefer email unless absolutely necessary, and if a call is warranted I’d rather schedule it.
Respect the medium, or if it’s not important enough to switch, don’t start the conversation in the first place.
The earlier-in-the-thread amnesia
If a long email chain has lain dormant for six months, it’s acceptable to ask for a quick recap on some past points. But in the span of a few days when a multi-email thread has been going back and forth it sends a bizarre signal when you ask a question already answered or make a point that completely ignores earlier portions of the discussion.
Refresh yourself on the thread before each response. If wording is unclear, ask, don’t assume.
The solution: be definite
None of these bad habits are about writing ability or subject matter mastery. They seem to me to reflect a lack of confidence, or a lack of focus, or a lack of respect for other people’s time and mental energy, or a lack of respect for your own time, or an avoidance of accountability to your own words, or just laziness. I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that they make the person you’re communicating with tired, which will make them think twice before texting you about an opportunity because they know the conversational cost is high and it might end with a lack of clarity about next steps.
Decide what you want to say. Say it. Mean it. Respond to the core question first. Respond in the manner requested. Respond promptly and consistent with prior communications. Don’t start a conversation you’re not willing to drive to the finish.