Are You Mad? How to Handle Boss’s Cryptic E-mails

Conciseness in writing is a virtue appreciated by anyone whose inbox is clogged with bloated messages. But how does an employee deal with an e-mail response from a boss that is so short it can’t be interpreted—or with not receiving a reply to an e-mail at all?

Many employees labor over carefully worded messages to their managers only to receive a cryptic one-word response. Experts say this can occur for a number of reasons. Some managers deliberately use silence to force employees to solve the situation on their own. Others may simply not know the answer or may choose to withhold it.

Many times, the reason for silence or terseness is due to poor writing. If an employee has sent an e-mail with a vague or misleading subject line, managers may ignore the message simply because they are in a hurry, experts say. The boss may likewise skip a message that has kept an unchanged subject line long after that topic has been dealt with.

Wordy e-mails that take too long to get to the point are another reason managers may avoid responding to an e-mail. The author may be trying to sound polite with wordy phrasing such as “I was just wondering if it isn’t too much trouble that perhaps maybe you could…” However, such long-winded requests are often simply ignored. Long, dense paragraphs are yet another turnoff.

Communication style is a big reason e-mails can be misinterpreted. A boss may send a one-word response to an employee’s well-worded request thinking it conveys approval. However, the employee who has spent the time to craft the e-mail may feel dismissed when receiving such a response.

Many say the answer to these dilemmas is to be aware of individual communication styles—or to forget the e-mail entirely and talk in person.

Discussion Questions for Your Classroom

  1. What characterizes a well-written subject line?
  2. Why is it important to compose an e-mail to look attractive and readable on the screen?
  3. What are some elements of document design you can use to make e-mails more readable?


We’d love to hear your e-mail experiences!

Source: Shellenbarger, S. (2014, March 12). When the boss’s reply seems cryptic. The Wall Street Journal, D1.

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