These Five Expressions Make All Your Emails Sound Whiny

We’re wired to read emails in a negative way. If you want to inspire people (rather than make them cringe), don’t use these phrases in your messages.


No one likes a downer–especially not by email, a format that makes people feel disconnected from each other to begin with. Whether you’re communicating with a boss, a colleague, or a customer, it’s always wise to be positive. Most people know that. But our heads are often full of thoughts, worries, and concerns at work, which makes it easy to inadvertently express those things, particularly when you’re dashing off an email on the fly.

In fact, researchers have found that we’re actually primed to read emails more negatively than they’re meant, so chances are yours sound whinier than you intended. The good news? All it takes is pruning out these five expressions to instantly improve the tone of your emails.

Avoid this phrase at all costs. There are times when it’s tempting to write, “I’m afraid we have chosen another candidate for the job,” or, “I’m afraid your work has not been at the level I’ve expected.” After all, you’re just trying to warn the other person before you give unpleasant news. But those words have an emotional undercurrent. Instead of softening the blow, they actually make it sound worse.

It’s always better to present the facts in a straightforward way. Simply write, “We have chosen another candidate” or, “Your work has not been at the level I would have expected.” The person you’re writing to will be less likely to react emotionally and more likely to discuss the situation objectively.

This word signals a sense of regret or apology. For example: “Unfortunately, I cannot be your keynote speaker,” or, “Unfortunately, our meeting has to be rescheduled since I have another commitment.” Just like “I’m afraid,” this phrase injects an unnecessary negative that makes the situation appear worse than it really is.

Why not use a positive? In the first example, you might write, “I’m delighted that you invited me to be your keynote speaker. I’ll be in Mexico that month but would love to speak another time.” Or in the second example, say, “I’ll need to change the timing of our meeting. If 2 p.m. works for you, that would be great for me as well.” These responses are reinforcing, rather than filled with regret

This is the “cover your butt” response to a problem. It’s defensive, suggesting that the writer takes no responsibility for what’s happened. You can bet that your recipient will react irritably.

Never write an email phrased to prove you didn’t do anything wrong; prove you can get it right. This means showing the recipient what you’ll do for them, how you can solve a problem, when they can expect things to be fixed. Remember: It’s not about you; it’s about the person receiving your message.

This expression is like a rap on the knuckles for an infraction. A manager might tell a staff member, “It concerns me that you can’t get along with your teammates.” Worse, it actually conveys two layers of criticism: Not only is the employee’s action wrong, but the boss is upset by it.

It’s always better to avoid this emotional overload–especially by email. Instead, just write, “I’ve observed that you have some challenges interacting with your teammates.” This is an open-ended message that invites a discussion, rather than a conflict.

Many people use this expression at the end of their emails. I’ve asked people why, and most of the time their answer is, “It sounds polite.” The problem is that it smacks of uncertainty. When I read an email that concludes with, “if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me,” I immediately think, “What question do I have?” or, “What question should I have?” Not only do I wonder if something is missing, but it makes me think that the writer isn’t sure of themselves, either.

Instead, close with the more positive, “I suggest we proceed with the project,” “I’ll look forward to your agreement,” or “I’ll set up the schedule for our work together.” These “presumptive closings” clear the way for your views to be well-received and the recipient to follow your recommendations.

For every negative expression, there’s a positive one that will do a better job. So do one final check to make sure that these whiny phrases are nowhere to be found before hitting “send.”

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