How Not to Sound Like an Arrogant Jerk

· · project-management

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Digital projects are different when it comes to communication because people who work together aren’t necessarily at the same location or even time zone. This means most of the communication is electronic.

The trouble with electronic communication is that it’s easy to misconstrue. You can’t just write :

“Great job”

“Can you send me assets now?”

You have to write:

“Great job! This is really excellent, I love it!”

“I need assets to finish the design. Could you maybe send them as soon as possible, if you can?”

Both messages say the same thing but they make us feel and respond differently. The first pair of comments seems dishonest or harsh while the latter makes us like the other person more.

Talking face to face is a lot simpler as we don’t have to bother with “padding” our message because voice, rhythm, and body language do the job. This is why emails tend to be long and artificial - we need to compensate for the lack of body language by writing more or else we risk sounding brusque and rude.

It’s also why, when we’re about to send an email to the boss, we sweat over each word because we have to think of all the possible interpretations. So we spend 10 minutes writing and rewriting a request that could be done faster if we met them in a hallway. What’s even worse, we all complain when we get a long email - but we’d be offended if it didn’t have some fluff.

To avoid sounding like a jerk, you should go out of your way to explain your reasoning. This may feel phony, but it works. It softens the in-your-face tone your message could otherwise have. Even starting a message with a cheerful “Hi, Amy“ instead of just “Amy” can soften the impression. Adding a few emojis and informal “hey”s and “what you think”s can also soften the message without creating too much padding.

On the other hand, the opposite can happen also: the informality and privacy of sitting in front of a computer screen tend to put us off our guard. For example, a designer who presents mockups through email can come across as arrogant and as taking too much credit for the design others had contributed to.

Electronic communication suffers from two additional problems:

  • delay - a problem can take much longer to solve using email than talking;
  • polarized decisions - we are less likely to compromise when we try to reach a solution electronically as each side’s opinions tend to be completely opposite; this happens because we lack social awareness and nonverbal channels which reduce our need to compromise.

This is especially important for cross-functional project teams who work on complicated problems. Without a real meeting from time to time, projects take much longer to finish.

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