The Gospel of Word Choice

Jesse Shewfelt 13/01/15

We all have that struggle. E-mailing has become a weirdly pseudo-professional realm of correspondence. E-mail is the medium of communication that everyone takes seriously; likely because it has no “so and so is writing right now” or “so and so has read this”. It demands a certain degree of professionalism in its composition. I’ve been asked to edit e-mails more than I’ve been asked to edit essays.

It’s the bastard son of real postage and texting. That grey area between “distant pen-pals” and “tight texting buddies”. I want to train you to navigate this with dexterity. It seems that there is no one-way ticket to a good e-mail (or Facebook status, or comment, or anything else where you display your words). With other people over-analyzing you all the time, everything you say can be misconstrued. Defend yourself from the assumptions of others with the following analysis.

First: the general address to recipient. I’ve studied my e-mails well, and “Dear ___ , “ has appeared many times – undoubtedly this remains from the tradition of letter writing. In e-mails where comfortable distance is needed, mirroring the real distance between people who might send letters is the best tactic. The physical distance which is inherent in letter writing will accentuate the distance you have in terms of personal relation. I like to imagine myself deliberating over these e-mails with a quill and ink, and instead of the internet I have a courier pigeon. The other person ought to know how serious I am, and if I were to use the following address, they would undoubtedly assume the subject of the e-mail is something unimportant, or even frivolous.

If wanting to sound friendly, I typically use a “Hi ___ , “. I make it sound closer to a text of some kind to make it seem more casual. I like to imagine I’m sending these e-mails with my left hand in my pocket, and the phone sitting in my – casually limp – right hand; like, whatever y’know? But it’s actually serious because why else would I use e-mail? I just don’t want the other person to assume it’s serious. In times like this, if you were to use “Dear ____” the other person may assume that you have some sense of self-importance. Where these two types of opening addresses can get complicated is where you actually do want the other person to assume it’s serious; but you want to be casual about it. This is where the exclamation point comes in.

When it’s important – and you want the other person to assume that it’s important – the exclamation point is your way of riding the fence between casual, and effing intense. The more exclamation points you use, the more effing intense you sound (whether in a row such as: !!! ; or repeatedly used for every sentence)!!!

These e-mails always open with “Hi ___!”

Sometimes I open with “Hello ___!”, but only when I want to seem spontaneous! It’s times like these I like to imagine a laugh track playing after every sentence! It’s great.

Now that you’ve spent enough time on your opening two words, and selective punctuation, you can move on to the topic of your e-mail. “I’m e-mailing you concerning ______” gets straight to the point, and for added effect you can insert what the e-mail is “concerning” in the subject line. Now the recipient assumes exactly what you’re going to talk about, and they’re thinking “Wow this individual has got their s**t on lock”; or something to that effect.

Employ the same degree of deliberation and scrutiny to the rest of your e-mail, and you’ll escape assumptions. E-mails are hard copies of your writing style, and can be subject to the judgement of the reader. We all know how fast judgements fly surrounding the words a person uses – whether in public, over text, in private, or on Facebook – so I think we all know how the words we choose impact the assumptions of others. Like e-mails, your word choice in all facets of your life have a crazily disproportionate impact on what you mean to say. If wanting to avoid misinterpretation in all realms of communication, be as careful and selective in all of your words.

This tactic is good for Facebook statuses because trollers, and relentless Facebook-dissenters can’t tell you what you’re saying. To appropriate this tactic into Facebook statuses simply say “I’m publishing this status because I’m concerned about _____”. This should dissuade anyone from trying to assume “you said ____ , which means ____ , which means you’re an a**hole”. Nobody seems to like asking provocative questions that promote understanding. Food for thought, like real food, is on a fast-track to the “a**hole” and skips all the wonderful bits of digestion that ought to happen. Edit your words with the deliberation you edit your e-mails. Select your words as carefully as you select your assumptions.

Nobody is backing down from their assumptions.

Don’t back down from your word choice.


Jesse Shewfelt is an Assistant Editor at the Queen’s Tartan