Tone of voice for Mint Lounge

This week’s column for Mint Lounge about how you say what you say. Click here for Mint’s website

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Posted: Thu, Mar 17 2011. 8:39 PM IST
Columns
What does your email say about you?
In today’s geographically diffused world when much of our interaction is through email and social networks, online tone becomes especially important
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Kiran Gupta is a Mumbai-based top executive of a multinational firm. For the last two years, he has travelled the world to boost his company’s revenue at enormous personal cost. Some time ago, his contract came up for renewal and the negotiations got ugly. The company was not giving him what they promised, citing sagging sales and other such “excuses”. They went back and forth, and Gupta was pushed into a corner. He was ready to accept the much lower salary and bonus, he says, but for the chairman’s imperious tone when offering it. Instead of staying firm and coming up with a workable compromise, Gupta abruptly got up and left the room, severing ties with the firm that had consumed his life for years.

Signature style: Curt or courteous, the tone of your emails can dictate how your relationships with people progress.
How many of you have walked out of deals, relationships and jobs, not because of content but because of tone? At a marriage I attended recently, a man asked for ice cream and didn’t like the server’s “rude” tone when he said he would bring it later. A huge fight broke out. Names were called, tables were overturned, and relationships ruptured. “All over some silly ice cream,” said my maid, Geeta, whose family marriage it was. It wasn’t the ice cream; it was the server’s tone that caused the damage.
Three decades ago, Albert Mehrabian, a social psychologist of Armenian descent, posited a rule that is quoted in communication seminars all over the world even today. He called it the 7%-38%-55% rule, meaning that 7% of our impression of other people comes from content or the words they speak; 38% from their tone of voice and 55% from their body language. But what if we don’t see these people?

In today’s geographically diffused world when much of our interaction is through email and social networks, online tone becomes especially important. In BPO and other businesses, employees rarely, if ever, meet their superiors. Many of our impressions of people are through their online personalities. My question to you then is: How do you deal with tone? Does it affect you or do you discount it?

Tone is regional. I once asked Deepa Krishnan, who runs Mumbai Magic, a tour company, why Mumbaikars spoke in what south Indians such as me considered an overly familiar and casual tone. You know the complaint: You meet a Mumbaikar once and the next time, he talks as if he is your close friend.

“It’s because we are in a hurry,” Krishnan replied. “When people from Mumbai meet each other, the greeting is like ants. You know how ants do the quick greet-and-go? A quick hello-hi-chal-bye-I-have-the-train-to-catch. Contact-and-run. Smile-wave-nod-hurry-hurry.”

I can only imagine how a person from Lucknow, with all its exquisite and elaborate tehzeeb and circular pehle aap (after you) etiquette, would feel about the Mumbai “yaari-dosti” culture? Why go so far? After living for five years in genteel and polite Bangalore, I find Chennai’s autorickshaw drivers impossibly rude. And I grew up in that city.

Online tone can result from technology. I have friends (and a husband) who send short, terse messages not because they are rude or impersonal but because they aren’t adept at typing long replies into their BlackBerrys or phones.

Email convention too varies. Some use the traditional letter format, beginning with a “Dear,” and ending with a “Regards,” or “Best wishes”. Most follow the convention of a greeting (“Hi, or Dear X”) for the first email and then revert to quick replies sans header or footer thereafter. One technocrat I know has a unique way of writing emails— beautifully spaced and with tabs. Who does that these days? My friend, Ann La Rue, believes that emails ought to be different from traditional letters and refuses to use any header or footer. Much as I love her, I still find her emails abrupt after all these years.

Austin, Texas-based psychology professor Sam Gosling knows a thing or two about tone. An acclaimed social psychologist who authored the book, Snoop: What your Stuff Says about You, Gosling has done research and given lectures about how we form impressions of people.

I called Gosling on Skype one day and we had a chat. One of the things that has happened recently, he said, is that people have stopped using the personal pronoun as a way of “distancing themselves” from the other party. Rather than say, “I am happy to talk to you,” they’ll say, “Happy to talk to you.”

What about the brief emails that business people routinely send, I asked. Sure, it sounds abrupt, but how much of it is intentional and how much of it is because they are in a hurry or because they cannot type so much content into a BlackBerry. “It is intentional,” said Gosling unequivocally. “Sure, the norms have changed and messages have become briefer with BlackBerrys. But research shows that people will change how they write depending on whom they are writing to. If they are writing to someone higher up in the power hierarchy, then suddenly their emails, even on a BlackBerry, aren’t so brief and terse.”

What about fan mail, I asked. What about admiring emails that actors, authors and CEOs get? Do you keep a standard response that you send out? “I try to keep it authentic,” he replied. People are remarkably adept at spotting fake boilerplate responses, even by email.

What’s your email style? Do you care about tone? Your answer could decide the future of all your interactions, relationships, and choices.

Shoba Narayan believes that content is king but not to the tone-deaf who speak in undertones . Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Click here for the Sam Gosling interview.