A few minutes into my morning commute, I glanced up from my book and inwardly groaned. When I should have been looking out across the water to the Seattle skyline, I was headed down an unfamiliar side street toward a neighborhood nowhere near my downtown office.
I pulled out my phone to send my boss a quick email: “Good morning, just wanted to let you know I’ll be in a few minutes late. Bus trouble!” She shot back a cheery, “No problem, see you soon!” I then sent my co-worker a text with a few choice words and emojis about my inability to master public transportation.
After nearly a year at my current job, I know it’s customary to send a note if you’ll be arriving significantly later than usual, as a courtesy. And although my boss and I are on very friendly terms, a quick email is more appropriate than texting. But I have friends who wouldn’t think twice about sending their boss a text, emojis and all, or wouldn’t have sent an update in the first place because that would be considered overkill in their office.
No company culture is quite the same, and figuring out what “professional” means for your office, or even just your immediate team, isn’t always easy to gauge right off the bat. It will of course differ depending on your line of work as well (my internal emails laden with Full House gifs probably wouldn’t fly at my best friend’s law firm).
It took me a few weeks of careful observation to get the lay of the land at my new job, from what my new co-workers were wearing to whether they took lunch or ate at their desks. I took mental notes (more trendy jeans than traditional business casual wear; same went for going out versus working through lunch). This seemed to apply to communication style as well, which leaned toward casual rather than overly formal.
I took particular note of the emails I was receiving, because today there is such a thing as being “too professional.” Although there’s still a time and place for formalities, most people I work with have adopted a more “business casual” approach to communication (both in person and from behind a computer), one that makes it seem like you’re actually interacting with another human being rather than a robot.
But pinning down that perfect combination of personable-yet-consummate professional is a learned skill. Luckily, I happen to work with a few people who seem to have mastered the concept, and I’ve picked up a few things.
The Art of the Email
Navigating the subtle nuances of email is an art form; one punctuation misstep and things can go downhill quickly. I’ve spent a full day agonizing over a five-line email, my finger hovering over send like the free world depended on my message being executed perfectly.
1. Watch your tone.
Although you shouldn’t give any email that much thought, some should go into the tone you’re going for in your message and what level of formality is appropriate. When first writing someone, I aim for conversational, letting my personal voice show through while retaining the basic elements of formality, like a proper greeting, punctuation, spelling, etc. Depending on the response, I’ll adjust my correspondence accordingly—in my experience, matching tone can often make for better communication. (But don’t feel the need to sacrifice your intellectual integrity for someone intent on spelling it “u” instead of “you.”)
2. The period is no longer neutral.
You can feel the chill from across the office when someone sends you a sentence purposefully cut short with a period. Once unthreatening, it can now convey a healthy dose of snark, sternness or even aggression. Take a second glance at your next message to make sure that period doesn’t make your correct punctuation sound unintentionally menacing or uptight.
3. It’s OK to use exclamation points (sparingly).
Exclamation points can be effective to express enthusiasm (or give an otherwise flat email a sense of levity) if used with restraint. I try to stick to one per email, and I draw a firm line at emoticons.
4. Your signoff can say a lot.
A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but today ending an email with “Thanks” can come off as inadvertently curt. I usually use “Best” or “All the best” if I’m feeling fancy. I don’t see “Sincerely” too often anymore, unless it’s on a college intern’s application.
But Don’t Get Too Comfortable
Whether it’s via email or face to face, there are still a few areas where you can never be “too” professional, no matter how it’s defined in your workplace. At the end of the day, it’s still your job, and being able to preserve working relationships should always be high on your priority list.
5. Be tactful.
Even if your office has a laid-back vibe, it’s pretty hard to come back from an uncomfortably flippant or politically incorrect remark—so use your filter. Whether it’s in a brainstorming session or just chatting in the break room, you’re in a work environment and there’s a level of professional respect implied; you never know what might offend another person.
6. Be constructive.
If there’s an issue, offer a solution, don’t just continue the negativity. It makes people uncomfortable and detracts focus from solving the problem. Avoid comments that could come off as belittling or condescending, especially in group settings.
7. Keep your cool.
Throwing a temper tantrum at work will instantly land you a glowing neon sign above your head that reads “Can’t keep it together like an adult.” This includes slamming drawers, stomping around, sighing loudly and aggressively muttering to yourself. If you have an issue with someone or something, take a walk, count to 10, or do whatever it is you need to do not to lose it. If you feel the need to raise the concern with a superior, collect your thoughts beforehand and head into the room with a cool head.
Karin Vandraiss is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a background in food and travel. She spends off-hours scouting new restaurants and hiking her way through the Pacific Northwest.