Software

A technical workaround for lack of social skills?

You have spell-check to help you avoid embarrassing typos, but what if your email is still problematic? Could it be your tone? Toni Bowers discovers ToneCheck.

For the most part, spell-check is a good thing. It's a little tough for those of us who write about tech careers, because it doesn't quite get certification abbreviations. But for your average Joe, it can prevent some embarrassing moments.

Now if we could only do something about the tone some communications take. If there was a tool that could let an emailer know that the way he is saying something might be misconstrued, well.....wait! There is such a tool.

ToneCheck, created by a Canadian company is an Outlook plug-in that identifies potential problem phrases before your email is sent.

Matt Eldridge, who came up with the idea for the program, described for NPR how tone can make a difference in an email message. "You misunderstood, as opposed to: You misunderstand. You know, the literal meaning is the same. But emotionally, I mean it makes you feel different." (I'm not clear on which one is better.)

The main page on the ToneCheck site actually cites a bad example of email tone in this one: "Bob, you should get off your pedestal and listen to your sales team." The phrase "get off your pedestal" is highlighted and marked with an unhappy face icon. Really? That needed to be clarified?

I think the plug-in should come with a feature where, after so many "fails" like the one above, that user has to be banned from email forever.

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

26 comments
michael_poplawski
michael_poplawski

I believe part of the problem is that the amount of communications that pass through our hands via email is truly enormous. A slip up has to happen once in a while. Back in the bad old days you would actually think through what you were trying to say, and it would be checked by others before going out, especially by you. In the Army we used a concept called "Napoleon's Corporal." Once you write document, or an order, you get a lower ranking person to read it and tell you what it means. If their interpretation is not what you are trying to convey you have a problem, especially in a combat order, and you need to re-write it.

Jaqui
Jaqui

how can I agitate people if I have some tool not allowing inflammatory phrasings? ;)

felleroy
felleroy

I feel a bit uncomfortable with this... That is assuming all non-technical people have social skills. Bernie Madoff had social skills? Osoma has social skills? I think you see where I going. We live a dysfunctional society and we cannot assume that people who have lots of people contacts have good social skills. Keeping the tone pleasant is important for everyone. Thanks for letting me vent. :o) Any spelling mistakes here?

Tim Heard
Tim Heard

What an amazing concept! I am constantly impressed by the creativeness that people demonstrate by the applications that they create. ... That someone would even think to develop such an application is impressive, and if it works effectively even 50% of the time, then it's helpful. I tend to be very direct in my emails, sometimes to the point of sounding overly confrontational. It's something I have improved at over the years, but I think that it would be awesome to have my own "virtual editor" to make sure that I don't inadvertently tick off important business contacts! :-)

JonGauntt
JonGauntt

What I found that works best for me is to go ahead and type up the emotional email as soon as you receive the email that prompts the emotion (anger and frustration are probably the two biggest that will get you in trouble, cause who is upset about happiness?). Instead of sending it as soon as you are finished typing it, close it out and let it sit in your Drafts box for an hour while you get up from your desk, get some water and do a few other tasks. After you have vented your frustration to the email, you can usually go back and reread what you have stated that you would immediately regret. Sometimes I have modified those emails, but most of the time I just delete them and retype a professional email. In cases where I still can't type without rage, it's time to go discuss it with someone else.

TechrepLath
TechrepLath

Misunderstood words that have similar words with different meanings in other languages are quite common when working in multi-national (or multi-cultural) organizations. "Eventually" will mean "Possibly" to a French native speaker and "Actually" will mean "Now" to a dutch speaker. The difference between phrases such as "There is little doubt" or "There is a little doubt" can make all the difference in meaning, but are not always well understood.

dawgit
dawgit

Past vs. present, no? Is grammar now not PC? I guess the phrase "You're just all mucked up on that" would be PC improper. Oh, the good old days. :(

randy.r.reveal
randy.r.reveal

Maybe these people should stop complaining about, oops, judging an app without trying. Many time emails get sent out by someone reacting to a situation and not really thinking about the best way to communicate their concerns before clicking on the send.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Sometimes my missives are open to interpretation. Some sort of pointer to how irrascible I'm being would be useful. I like to aim for really, really myself....

tbmay
tbmay

...solution for a lack of social skill since we've always had a social solution for a lack of technical skills. As was already said, sometimes you DO have to be blunt. Sometimes time is of the essence and if you're communicating with someone who is dragging his feet, deliberately or otherwise, if you sugarcoat the request you've given him an out that could be used against you. I wouldn't use it all the time but I would in instances where there's no crisis.

Regina55
Regina55

The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place. - George Bernard Shaw I have the above quote in the signature line of my emails. Email communication is difficult because there is no body language to help interpret your meaning. I work in a company that is truly a telecommuting company and email problems are the worst. People misunderstand and misinterpret constantly. I received an email this morning that I could only label "snarky". But if this person was talking to me in the flesh I doubt that would be her meaning. And I have seen that some of the emails I have sent have had the same effect on others. I've gotten to where I try to initiate phone conversatiions instead of email if at all possible. It is still not as great as talking face to face but at least there is some feedback and communication can be adjusted on the sppot. The biggest problem I see with a feature like this is that the ones who really need it won't think they do and won't use it!

alsanme
alsanme

I can't get the point of that application. I think that with a minimum of communication skills one should be aware of what tone has to be used in a message without letting your computer dictate the exact words. Mainly because some times you will have to say exactly "get off your pedestal" and some others use a more humble "maybe it would be interesting to pay some attention to the point of view of your sales team". It is important to be able to handle various types of verbal communication, not letting a machine to do that for you. If necessary, better take a course on Communication! Maybe it has reminded me the awful Spanish spell checker in older versions of MS Word...

mmoran
mmoran

"Actually" will also mean "now" or "currently" to a Spanish speaker (actualmente). And then there's the reverse issue of emails from non-native English speakers. Some years back we had a customer in Singapore and whenever the woman who handled RMA's on their end had some detail that she wanted to be certain we understood, it would be prefaced with "Pay attention!" At first, her counterpart on our end was offended by what seemed like very rude wording, but after a few emails it became evident that she was using the phrase in the way that a native English speaker might say "Please note."

dawgit
dawgit

Pesky little boogers, I've seen them totally screw up a lot of projects. ]:)

coyotech
coyotech

In everyday communications you're better off not being so blunt, and not showing your anger. This is wise not only to keep from making enemies, but because it can happen that you'r wrong, and it's better not to broadcast the fact with snarky, rude emails. But sometimes it's proper to say what you really think, the way you want to say it. And of course that's always a pleasure!

toni.bowers
toni.bowers

with your assessment about the ones really needing it not using it. But I just can't see how an application can catch snark. Also, like the example they use on the site--if you don't know that "get off your pedestal" is rude, then can a single well-meaning app even help you?

Alienwilly
Alienwilly

The word "workaround" indicates there is a problem. Saying (writing) what you mean and meaning what you say (write) will eliminate needing a workaround. Tone, inflection, expression, demeaner, body language and the the lack of a technical writing skills are more likely the problem. The most important part is: Do you think that what I've written was intended to offend you? Feel free to respond, it won't hurt my feelings. I'm the only one that can allow you to do that. Have a nice day.

coyotech
coyotech

I bet everybody has sent a badly worded email that caused a problem at least once. Unless you don't have enough people skills to realize that your email offended someone :-) Unless you take the time to have other people check your emails before sending them, it's going to happen. Then you waste time with a people problem created by yourself. I'd happily give that program a try. BTW, the problem with "you misunderstand" is that it can be taken a saying the person habitually misunderstands, for those really touchy people. "Misunderstood" sounds more like a one-time occurrence.

NexS
NexS

Of dealing with social problems. They go to university for 6 years to help people. They're called doctors, psychologists, shrinks, or any other skew of the meaning. If someone realises that their social skills aren't up to scratch, they'd surely realise that it wouldn't be localised to emails only. EDIT: Not meant as a response to this comment, rather a comment on the blog.

NexS
NexS

Rhymes with 'Slap'. And I believe a 'single well-meaning' slap may help them.

Regina55
Regina55

I went back and looked at the email that seemed snarky. I found some key phrases that I think indicate that: Wouldn't it be... Wouldn't it just... I would think... If you still... Rewording these would definitely reduce the snark tone. Does the app trigger on them?

coyotech
coyotech

If all you're doing is sending information, and there are no difficulties involved, you hardly ever get into trouble. The problem is when there is already a problem of some kind, or a need to do more than give information. Then, the email gets complicated! I've sent emails that caused problems, received emails that caused problems, and occasionally mis-read perfectly good emails, or had mine mis-read. People often use the phone in that case. Sometimes that's probably the best answer.

NexS
NexS

Like children until they grow up? Yes, please.

Regina55
Regina55

I have often longed for 'smacking priviledges'! I think that should be made available, but only to us discerning few, of course.

coyotech
coyotech

You can say something like "It sounds like there was a misunderstanding. Here's what I mean to say..." I've had to use that pretty often, not having that program :-)

Hobbesl
Hobbesl

I get a better reaction when I take the responsibility for the misunderstanding onto myself. Instead of "You misunderstood" or "You misunderstand", I will say "I'm sorry, I think I'm explaining this badly..." People are much less touchy if I take the responsibility and sometimes, I really am explaining it badly! :)