Prone to being overly polite in work emails? We asked careers coach, Suzy Ashworth, for her advice on how to kick time-wasting email habits and improve your confidence at work.
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“Sorry for my delayed response!” “I’m just checking in to see if it might be possible for me to just check up on that thing I was just wondering about?” “No worries if not – sorry to bother you!”
Does this look even a little bit like an email you’ve sent in the past month? Apologetic language is used by women all the time in professional settings, mostly via emails, where coming across as likeable can often take priority over getting things done.
A study by the Candian University of Waterloo found not only do women tend to apologise more than men, but men apologise less frequently because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour.
“It’s the fear of rejection. It’s the fear of judgement and the idea that we might be perceived in an aggressive way,” says Suzy Ashworth, a quantum transformation and embodiment coach who helps women become conscious leaders in professional settings.
Suzy says being overly polite and apologetic in emails is often linked to feelings of imposter syndrome, as you subconsciously ask yourself questions like: “Am I allowed to take up space?” “Am I really allowed to be the boss?” “Am I qualified enough to make this request or, sometimes, demand?”
“There is a permission that we seek,” she continues. “And that permission comes in the shape of an apology.”
Suzy explains that women are often taken less seriously because of the way they interact in emails and it can even negatively affect their career progression.
“Giving yourself permission to be the boss changes the way people receive what you’re saying. So when you take yourself more seriously, other people will take you more seriously,” she says.
If you’ve only ever written emails this way, the idea of totally abandoning the approach you’re used to might seem daunting. Fortunately, Suzy has some advice that will help you feel good about changing the way you communicate via email, with practical steps to help you change up your tone.
Only send emails from a place of calm
Often, one of the reasons you might worry about being blunt in emails is a fear of being misconstrued. However, as long as you know the intentions behind your email come from a reasonable place, there’s no need to worry about this, Suzy explains.
Set ‘email boundaries’
One of the reasons you might be apologising in emails is your response time. “Most people treat email like instant messenger,” Suzy says, explaining this shouldn’t be the case at all and you shouldn’t have to apologise for not replying to emails immediately.
“Being really clear about what your response times are is super helpful,” she continues, adding it can be useful to set up an automatic response to let other people know the time frame you intend to reply, which might be 24, 36, or 48 hours.
“As long as you respond in that timeframe, there’s no need for an apology,” Suzy says.
Decide how authentic you want to be via email
Although your priority at work should be maintaining a professional tone, it’s also useful to consider how much of your own voice you want to bring into your emails.
However, if you work for a company or in a more corporate role, it’s okay to temper your tone to match the people you’re working with. This kind of mirroring can be helpful to ensure you’re fitting into the environment you work in, as well as representing your company correctly.
Stop using exclamation marks, once and for all
Choosing the right amount of exclamation marks to use in an email to help you seem both likeable and professional can become a huge source of stress. The solution to this, according to Suzy, is to abandon exclamation marks altogether, apart from in exceptional circumstances.
“Using an exclamation mark is like writing in capitals,” Suzy says, explaining it’s totally unnecessary and changes the tone of an email to one that isn’t professional.
The only circumstance in which an exclamation mark is appropriate, according to Suzy, is when you are actually describing something you’re genuinely very excited about.
Never use ‘just’
‘Just’ is a modifying word that you need to remove from your email vocabulary for the most part, according to Suzy. “It’s so diminishing and the minute you diminish yourself, you reduce the value of your presence on that email to whoever is receiving it,” she says.
Scan through your emails before you send them and ensure you’re not using the word ‘just’ to modify what you’re saying unnecessarily. If you are, remove the ‘just’s and see if the meaning of the email has changed for the worse. If it hasn’t, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t send it. It should now read more simply and directly.
Remember you either need something done or you don’t
The other phrase you’re probably using unnecessarily is ‘no worries if not’. “You either want it done or you don’t want it done,” Suzy says, explaining that the only circumstance you should use this phrase is if you genuinely do not need the thing you’re asking for done. In that case: “Don’t waste somebody’s time if you’re not really that bothered about getting it done.”
“You have to take ownership of what you desire,” she says. Including phrases that suggest what you need doing isn’t important in your email will only make your job harder as people are less likely to take you seriously and won’t prioritise the thing you’ve asked them to do.
Make a note of phrases and terms to avoid
Suzy suggests looking through emails you’ve sent recently and making a list of any apologetic or overly-polite words and phrases you’re using regularly. You can refer back to this list to make sure these words don’t make it into future emails.
- ‘No worries if not’
- ‘I don’t want to take up too much of your time’
- ‘Sorry to interrupt you’
- ‘Sorry to bother you’
Change the way you view yourself at work
All these tips can be difficult to implement without feeling nervous about how you might come across. To combat this Suzy recommends asking yourself the following questions: “Where do you want to go in the company?” “What are the identity traits of the person whose job you want to step into?” “Is that person apologising for what it is that they do?”
If you don’t like the way the leader or the person whose role you’d like to step into one day communicates over email, ask yourself what they should be writing. “Would they apologise for taking up your time or would they feel completely at ease knowing that by taking up your time, they’re going to create a positive ripple effect?”
Suzy Ashworth, business couch
Suzy is an entrepreneur and a quantum transformation and embodiment coach. She teaches a programme called The Freedom Experience to support other business women.
Images: Getty and Suzy Ashworth