It’s How It’s Interpreted

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 11 2011

Email is a beautiful thing and has made life so much easier for so many of us. When I started as an agent email was still a little bit in its infancy—sure, people used it, but I’m not sure we relied on it in quite the same way we do now. I can’t imagine doing this job without email. Whether it’s the middle of the night or the middle of the weekend I’m able to email my clients and respond to their concerns, and I think, because of email, we probably have more frequent communication than we would if we relied on snail mail or phone.

That being said, our reliance on email can be a little bit dangerous. I think it allows us to become lazy and forget the importance of good communication. Because while email is fabulous, it isn’t for all situations. The one thing to remember when it comes to email is that how an email is read is entirely based on the interpretation of the reader and what sort of baggage the reader brings to the reading. For that reason there are times when email is not, in my mind, appropriate.

For example, let’s say I have a client who is upset with the way a publisher is handling something. Maybe she feels the publisher isn’t doing enough work for her or isn’t behind her enough. I, on the other hand, having years of experience in this business, know that not only is the publisher doing what the publisher normally does, but in this instance the publisher is doing a lot more. However, as we all know, sometimes knowledge alone doesn’t make us feel better. Sending an email explaining this to an already dissatisfied and upset client could easily backfire on me. Instead of taking my words as calming, she could just as easily feel like even her agent isn’t on her side. Or feel like I’m simply dismissing her feelings. Which is why, in a situation like this, I would probably call, so that we could have a real back-and-forth discussion, I could explain myself and she could hear the tone of my voice to understand that I am on her side, and part of being on her side is to explain the way things work. We could also easily move on from dissatisfaction to problem solving, something email would probably take longer to accomplish.

My point in all this is to remind you all that while email is usually our favorite form of communication, it isn’t always the best, and in instances where conflict is possible or in instances of confrontation, or involving emotion, sometimes the best way to communicate is the old-fashioned way.


25 responses to “It’s How It’s Interpreted”

  1. I 100% agree. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten in trouble via email when I wouldn't have over the phone. And typing up emails takes longer than talking on the phone anyway.

  2. Thanks for the great post, Jessica. Email does make things easy, but I couldn't agree more with everything you've said. A time and a place for everything. Even an old-fashioned, through the mail, cardstock card. It's easy to forget the importance of different forms of communication when email is just so easy. Too easy, sometimes.
    I hope if I ever get an agent, she's that insightful.

  3. Exactly! Especially in this business. People who deal with words every day find subtle differences or inflection of emotion in every single word and interpret them differently.

    Or analyze them to death and pick at it until there's no flesh left on the carcass. By the time we're done with it, it's not even in the same ballpark as the initial idea.

  4. Avatar A3Writer says:

    Sadly, I believe that texting will soon overtake email as convenience overshadows the importance of communication. I hear my students tell that they would rather send a dozen text messages, and a dozen more explaining one that was misinterpreted, than make a call or send an email. Yes, there's no need to point out the inefficiency, or that two dozen texts is the same as an email.

  5. I was pondering an email related question on my way into work this morning. It's generally agreed that when an author receives an offer of representation, it's courteous and professional to inform other agents who are currently reviewing the same work that an offer is on the table. But how do you communicate this to an agent that only deals with paper submissions? (There are still a few out there.) Is this one of those situations where calling is acceptable or should you write a letter and hope they read it before you make a decision?

  6. Avatar ryan field says:

    I was just trying to explain this to a friend over the weekend. E-mail can be taken the wrong way and people can be inadvertenly insulted or annoyed.

    I love how one copy editor I work with always uses little smile faces when offering suggestions. Those silly little smile faces made a huge difference, especially when it comes to criticism.

  7. Emails and texts can also fall prey to the "black hole of cyberspace" phenomena where they don't reach their destination. I've had this happen more than once with both business and personal emails.

  8. Avatar tiggy says:

    Well said. There really isn't a tone for emails, it's whatever the reader makes it out to be. Serious issues shouldn't be handled with either text/email. It's impersonal and a bit disrespectful.

  9. Avatar therese says:

    Posting a ":)" or "LOL!" does not convey the humor of a joke and could easily be taken the wrong way too.


  10. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    Jessica totally nailed this one–and there are times when I need to call her and get information by phone that I could easily email her for, but I need the sound of her voice and the inflection to have the information make sense.

    It's so easy to misinterpret even the simplest thing sometimes. We tend to forget how much of a conversation is voice and inflection. Even better is body language and expression, which is why I love the occasional chance we have to meet in person.

  11. totally agreed. at certain moments, 'tis best to just PICK. UP. THE. PHONE.

    And, no one has mentioned this, but – some conversations I find better to sort out on the phone first, then follow up with an email to confirm and get the understanding in writing.

  12. Avatar Bethany says:

    Email is great, as you said, but I also agree that the phone is a very handy mode of communication. In fact, short of seeing a person in person (or snail mail), it's the 2nd best form of communication to me. I enjoy emails, I like receiving them, but I can't tell you how much I've appreciated it when a family member/friend/person Im working with took the time to dial my number and call me up (even if it was for "no particular reason, just to call").

  13. Yep. Same with texting. I'm all about it, but you lose something without tone and inflection. Sometimes it can come across as cryptic and rude, when it isn't intended to.

    I found it sad lately when my daughter told me she knew next to nothing about her boyfriend of just over a month. Only the surface stuff they talked about in the hallway at school and then constant texting. But they NEVER talked on the phone. Never. I remember being on the phone for hours as a teen, and God help me if I could have brought that phone WITH me when I left??!! We'd laugh and talk and get to know people. You can't do that in sentences like 'how ws ur day mn ws fn & did u see her car it ws cl. cul8r.'

    There's something to be said for the human voice.

  14. I often think I communicate clearly when I speak, but in reality, I tend to sound more like the teacher from Peanuts. My students have gotten used to it and usually know what I mean.

    I have to use email because I can go back over what I've written several times and make sure it's clear.

  15. Avatar Stephsco says:

    I deal with this at work a lot. Many others I work with do things more "old school," while I have streamlined my processes with email templates (which I customize) and spreadsheets to track my work. However, the clientele I work with as customers are frenquently one or two generations older than me, so I try to keep that in mind. Sometimes it is easier to do a call and discuss something rather than send an email.

    I think with anything potentially confusing or upsetting, a call should always be made, as a good business practice. People, at least in a business relationship, may be less likely to go off on you if you offer a kind voice, rather than an email that can be misinterpreted.

  16. Avatar J.M.Cornwell says:

    I've been the victim many times of misinterpretation of emails. Unfortunately, it's not always possible to email someone across the world or even carry on an instant message communication because getting past the miscommunication is often difficult. This post needs to be repeated often.

  17. Avatar Sara says:


  18. Yes, exactly. I can't tell you how many times I've been misunderstood by email or even text. It probably doesn't help that I tend to tease people, and that without tone, it comes off wrong. Also, people sometimes understand sentences differently. It's very weird to find out that what I thought meant something is being understood in a different way by someone else.

  19. Avatar jesse says:

    Very true. I think this applies to text messaging/other-com-apps as well. Nothing can really match the intimacy of a phone call.

  20. Email and text in general often doesn't capture the nuance, tone, word emphasis, etc., that is conveyed by speech, unless one uses a lot of formatting, emoticons, or other ways to mark the text, which can be more time-consuming than picking up the phone and still depends on the audience being receptive to and able of understanding it. I still prefer email for most professional correspondence, and sometimes for personal communications that are short and sweet, but in-person or vocal communication is often simpler, more direct, and less confusing for many situations, especially ones that might involve a lot of emotion.

  21. I think it depends on the person, though. We all have our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to communication. The importance is the communication, not the method, although I think most people are strong verbal communicators.

    To me, verbal communication is a disaster. True, I have ADD, so I lose half of what the other person says to me. I think a million things, but either nothing comes out of my mouth, or only half comes out, which leads to huge misunderstandings and miscommunications.

    I cannot think and talk at the same time.

    Email, on the other hand, is just a writing skill. If you can communicate voice and tone in a novel, you can communicate voice and tone in an email. Generally, if I confront someone or resolve a dispute in an email, the recipient feels great and thanks me. It's easy-peasy.

  22. Avatar G says:

    My preference has always been to talk on the phone when I have issues that need to be addressed. But considering how I suffer from not engaging brain before putting mouth into gear with an alarming frequency, I now do the bulk of my communication via the e-mail.

    And I don't do normal e-mails either. Due to the nature of my job, I am forced to go above and beyond with so much information overload that I dare say that I could make most the commenter's heads swim if they'd read even one of my missives.

    However, I loathe the "LOL" and the "lol". I find them highly insulting and the fastest way for someone to get on my bad side.

  23. Avatar Lorena says:

    I agree. Sometimes we misinterpret the tone of an email and get hurt for no reason. I have also realized that talking on the phone when dealing with a sensitive issue is better than writing.

  24. I have found that to be so true. We can't always read the tone of the other person and so it is easy to assume. Voice to voice is always the best:)

  25. Avatar Nicole says:

    Too true. Sometimes when I'm writing back to an agent just to thank them for something, anytime I want to throw in something extra, I agonize over the words and phrasing so I don't come off as sarcastic or rude somehow. I'd love to throw in a smiley face as proof, but then that's not exactly professional.