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Once in a while I come across situation where I get email from colleagues (who are not my bosses or superior. In fact in most cases, I am at relatively senior position to them) where the tone is more like ordering rather than asking. Not part of on-going conversation (where I would understand a terse tone) but when starting a new conversation. For example, one day I will suddenly get an email from someone asking something like:

I need information on project X so that it would help me for my project Y. Please send me the details.

or

I have decided to schedule a meeting on this topic. You will have to be there at 3 PM.

Edit: There are lot of comments/answers on first one is perfectly fine example. I agree in general but there is lot more context to it. Basically they are asking me for a favor on their project which is not related to me. My job/performance does not get affected by it. I have expertise in that area so I can help them but it is not our day to day conversation. This is not a member of my team with whom I am exchanging information every day and I am expecting that in every communication, they use the tone I want. This is just out of the ordinary request coming from a different team. They have no authority over me and I do not have over them.

These are just few examples from different people. Not necessarily exact words but just overall tone which makes me little less excited to respond.

We are a small company and we work on lot of projects. At the end of the day, success of every project (whether directly part of my job or not) is success for the company. While my primary role does not require me to support them, I can easily see why my help is needed. People working on those projects just directly come to me without going through managers (Which is absolutely fine and that is how start-ups should work). I am happy to help if I can but I would just like to point it out politely that they would have to ask nicely. I do not think they intend to be rude but just do not understand how it is coming across.

I have so far not reacted directly because I did not like the tone but subconsciously I think I do not support them whole heartedly which I know is not fair.

I am not looking to forward it to anyone like my boss or their boss and escalate this.

Edits: I have made some edits clarifying few things on my role. Also, removed the line on not being about culture (May be it is!).

Also, note that when I say it is not part of my job I simply cannot decline it. If I think it is good for the organisation(and if I have time to support), I want to support and I have always been supporting it, irrespective of the tone. My manager trusts my discretion and usually does not interfere on what projects I chose to work on.

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    I have had this problem before, especially from people who don't speak English as a first language and don't understand the tone of how they are speaking, so frustrating eg. saying 'nope' instead of 'no' when it is clearly not appropriate. – Tom Jun 21 '20 at 20:18

10 Answers 10

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These answers are OK, but they are missing one possible and often effective technique for encouraging behavior change.

The way you do it is by "modeling" the correct/expected behavior.

In other words, pretend as though they prompted you using impeccable manners and respond to them with exactly the level of respect you want to see from them. Over time, they will sense and reciprocate your communication style if you do it for them consistently.

Behavior modification through modeling has long been used by effective teachers and leaders. It does work, but it takes time and consistency.

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    As a teacher, I can only confirm this. Across hundreds of interactions with students, I have found the most effective way to teach somebody what you consider proper interaction etiquette is to play your part irrespective of how the other side started the conversation. Most people are not rude on purpose, and get the hint after one to three such interactions. – xLeitix Jun 19 '20 at 8:32
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    Whereas outright telling people that their email sounds rude way too often just ends in a strange, pointless argument about the exact semantics of words and the usefulness of being perceived as polite. – xLeitix Jun 19 '20 at 8:34
  • I think this works best and in most cases I have been doing that. Just one note, I am not looking for 'using impeccable manners". Just do not want to be ordered (or sound like it) by anyone. – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 11:16
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    @xLeitix I also do that to teachers. Some teachers are very chill and I speak chill. Some teachers are not as chill and I speak to them as if I was speaking to Abraham Lincoln just for fun. – REDACTEDーーーーーーーーーーーーーーーーーーーーーー Jun 19 '20 at 12:51
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    "they will sense and reciprocate your communication style if you do it for them consistently" - not necessarily. I know people who are so utterly oblivious that they do not sense or reciprocate anything, even if you "model" for them daily for years on end. Yes, this advice is good, but it will not necessarily work with everyone. – Stephan Kolassa Jun 19 '20 at 15:20
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I am happy to help if I can but I would just like to point it out politely that they would have to ask nicely.

Don't do this - it's incredibly petty and ridiculous. It may not be as rude as you think it is - some people are just very matter of fact in emails, and the two examples you gave there could well be considered "matter of fact" more than outright rude.

Instead, if it's not part of your job role, presumably these things are part of someone else's - so the best thing to do IMHO, no matter the tone, is to tell them where they should be looking to find that info, either now or in the future.

Please send me the details of this project

This project is handled by Alice (cc'd) - she would be best placed to respond here.

Or, if you don't know:

You will have to come to this meeting.

Afraid that's not my area, and I'm not sure who would be best to help here. Check with (your manager.)

Clarifying from the comments however:

I cannot push it to someone else. They actually need my help. It is like they would have to use some of the learnings from my experience in project X to apply in project Y.

...then this almost certainly is part of your job role. It doesn't have to be explicitly stated, most companies would reasonably expect employees to to help out other employees with areas in which they're "internal experts", especially if they're the only ones to hold that knowledge.

In this case, you just need to reply as you would otherwise. Forget the blunt nature and assume they're asking, not requesting. You certainly don't need to prioritise their requests, but you should fulfil them. So for:

You will have to come to this meeting.

I'd likely reply:

Sure, I'm available then and happy to help. Feel free to send around an invite.

Or, if that caused a clash:

Afraid I'm not available then - I can join at the same time the following week, or happy to join if it's shifted after 1400.

Or, if you're working to a tight deadline and can't afford to break away for the meeting:

Afraid that I've no time free until after our current sprint finishes on the 23rd June. If you schedule something for after then I'll be able to join.

Tempting as it may be, don't use the above reasons "just because" the request is blunt - that'll come back to bite you. But, unless it comes from higher up, you shouldn't take these as top priority requests over your current work either.

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    Small correction. It's not that it sounds petty. It is petty, and to me going past ridiculous into asinine. – Joel Etherton Jun 18 '20 at 17:02
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    @JoelEtherton. I am assuming you would respond with equal enthusiasm to everyone irrespective of the tone of the email. I do not think most people do that though. – PagMax Jun 18 '20 at 17:10
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    @PagMax - I respond to all emails in the most professional manner possible that indicates that I'm doing my job to the best of my ability regardless of participation from others. If I have a problem with someone in an email or if I find myself taking offense at the language used, I will bring it up to that person in a conversation directly and I will always be respectful when I do it. – Joel Etherton Jun 18 '20 at 17:16
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    "f I have a problem with someone in an email or if I find myself taking offense at the language used, I will bring it up to that person in a conversation directly and I will always be respectful when I do it." That is exactly what my question is then!! and that simply could be your answer. BTW, I am mentioning from very beginning I want to do it very respectfully too – PagMax Jun 18 '20 at 17:26
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    If giving them information is good for the company, then you give them the information. That's it. It's their job to get the work done, not to be polite to you. And it's your job to help them, not to make petty demands and refuse to help them. – gnasher729 Jun 18 '20 at 23:13
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How to politely tell colleague to use respectful tone in emails

Don't.

Some people, for whatever reason, never learned proper communication skills. This is not exclusive to email communication, but applies to face to face interactions at the workplace as well. It is not your responsibility to teach your colleagues how to properly communicate.

Instead, what I would do is to try to make them think about their demands. If they demand that you send them some information or demand that you attend a meeting, you can simply ask "why?". Since you are not required by your job to fulfill their demands, whether you comply with their demands would depend on their explanation. Do not hesitate to reject their demands if they do not provide you with a satisfactory explanation.

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  • I agree that is probably the best answer and that is what I have been doing so far anyway. Just wanted to check if there was a different way to handle this. – PagMax Jun 18 '20 at 17:00
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    There is absolutelly nothing improper about the two examples OP gave. In fact, that's how in-company emails should be - short and to the point. I don't need 2 passages or verbiage wasting my time just to ask a simple question. If anything, that is rude for wasting my time. – Davor Jun 19 '20 at 15:45
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There are different methods of communication, often at least partially defined by where a person grew up. The following are very rough stereotypes of some of the cultures in the US:

  • New York - very direct speech, lets you know what needs to be done
  • Southern - polite, asking you to do something
  • Midwestern - need to speak about general topics before getting down to business

Essentially, some people will greet you, ask how you're doing, and then ask for something. And some others will just tell you what they need. It's not a matter of being impolite, it's just a different way of communicating. And when people who communicate differently have to work together, it can cause friction. They might be just as frustrated with you: all those words, can we just get to the point? Using email doesn't make it any easier.

You can tell them to be more polite, but that in itself isn't very polite, nor will it likely do any good. Since trying to change them will likely only frustrate you and not change them at all, the better option is to figure out how to change yourself.

Understanding that people are simply different, and have different ways of approaching work is probably a good first step. Research 'Ask vs Guess Culture', and look at the ways people within a country communicate, as well as how people in different countries communicate (in general, of course). Realize that they are probably not being deliberately rude, but are just trying to get their job done, as efficiently as they know how.

Then, be as polite to them as you like. Always be polite back.

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    New Yorkers know how to write a greeting and how to phrase a request as a request, and the ones who are even remotely professional do. New York directness is saying "Hi Bob, please send Jane the financials for the Doe account by closing today." instead of "Hi Bob, how is the dog doing? She's in all our thoughts. So anyway, the finance department is having a meeting about Doe & co tomorrow and Jane asked me to ask you if you have the time to pull the numbers. If you could get them by close of business today that would make lots of people happy. Hope snuffles is okay!" – hobbs Jun 19 '20 at 7:04
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    @hobbs But that's the phrasing OP is objecting to (well, minus the greeting: "Please send me the details."). I think what OP prefers would be the "Southern" approach (so instead of telling 'Please do X' more something like asking 'Could you do X for me?') – tim Jun 19 '20 at 14:01
  • "Realize that they are probably not being deliberately rude". I know. I mentioned in my question too. Also, greetings, small talk is not what I am looking for. I suppose I am not able to express it right but overall I get the point. Be as polite as you want them to be! – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 15:14
  • @hobbs Well I am not looking for so much greetings, small talk or even explanation on why they need the details! My question is probably misunderstood but I get it. – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 15:16
  • @tim you are right and that is kind of what I expect. I do not know about southern vs new york but my decade of experience with Americans and from people around the world, I usually get request the way I am expecting it. May be there is some cultural difference in wording but I think people are usually polite everywhere (or maybe I have been lucky!). My question is only for very specific cases when I see a tone which I am normally not used to. – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 15:22
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The prior answers suggest making a denial of service.
Stop doing something for your colleagues.

I am happy to help if I can but I would just like to point it out politely that they would have to ask nicely.

I just assume, that you still want to help people, and declined other peoples request isn't what you want.
You only want to have a polite conversation.

You could try to speak to them with "mr. [family-name]", (the indian equivalent of that)
to force your colleagues to do the same,
and continue keeping the conversion polite.

There is no 100% chance this works.
On the other hand, what you may despise, you can simply tell people to watch their tone.
I have the same problem like your colleagues, and sometimes when I'm just not concentrated my words suggest something completely different. And I get told, that I should watch my tone. And I apologise. And my conversation partner seems at least satisfied. You can try that.

I hope I could help you

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  • Thanks. I do not care about using Mr./Sir etc. We are very informal and mostly use first name! – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 10:28
  • @PagMax I'm sry that i couldn't help you. Still have a nice day :) – just wanna know Jun 19 '20 at 10:31
  • Well answer certainly helps. I just meant it is not about how to address me. Everything else makes sense. – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 11:17
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    I think this is a good answer, people can learn to communicate better. I did the same as OPs colleagues once, and my manager explained the problem with my tone over coffee (the other guy did escalate). Since then i write my request, reread it, rephrase if necessary, than add a polite greeting and humble 'If possible, thank you in advance' at the end. – Ivana Jun 19 '20 at 14:03
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In my experience, truth is is the eyes of the beholder.

Some people read text / email with their personal tone, which is very subjective

I would say, unless wording is explicitly hostile, try to see if there is another tone said email can be read at

Thank you

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Normally I'm all for being respectful..

But in this case I htink it is you who has to change. These are perfectly normal respectful questions. Adding fluff to a question requires straining your brain to be 'nice' (who is the recipient, what does he like etc). It takes time to write it up and isn't needed at all.

Just be direct to the point and professional.

It is exactly like questioning on stackexchange, there's a strict rule of no extra fluffy text, because it wastes everyone's time. The writer reader and potential future question askers.

Especially the first quote: he even said "please" what more do you ask? When I need something and we all work together for a common goal why would I even say "please". It is not like I ask you for a favour, it's normal that you do it - it's part of the job.

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    "It is not like I ask you for a favour, it's normal that you do it - it's part of the job." Except in this case it is a favor. Not part of my job. It may have long term benefit for the company if they succeed but not in my team not part of my job. A favor which they need for their project which is not related to me (Though I have expertise in that area). Also, not something we do on day to day basis. – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 17:09
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    Your job is not limited to exactly what is on paper, but to work with the company towards an end product. If you feel not answering those request just say so "I cannot help you now due to xyz". (which might very well be "no time", or "other priorities") - but if you dont' have a reason you ought to help. – paul23 Jun 19 '20 at 17:11
  • and like I said I do. Also my question is not what is my job and whether I should help them or not. I understand my job very well. – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 17:18
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    @PagMax well I just wanted to say that I consider the premise "these statements are disrespectful" wrong. They direct but very respectful. I'd find it on the contrary disrespectful if someone goes all the "oh can you please do that if you do not have a problem and if it might fit please?" – paul23 Jun 19 '20 at 17:39
  • While I do not agree, I understand your intent Paul. I never said they are disrespectful. This is a big word. I just do think it is not polite. (Maybe it is same as disrespectful but I look at it differently). I get your point though. – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 17:50
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I work with colleagues (who happen to be from India) with the exact attitude you want to achieve here. From my end, these colleagues are labeled as "difficult to work with" and "not a team player". They are employed for their special skill-set, and as such are difficult to replace, but unfortunately nobody really likes to work with them or request work from them as they constantly get lectured.

Employees at a company are a team and should work together as a team, whether official channels exist or not. Perhaps you should talk with your boss about these communication channels and whether they are needed and productive. He may be able to just have you reply with a redirection tactic of "Hey Bob, I'd love to help but without (Boss' name), I can't commit to that effort right now".

I definitely wouldn't try to start to educate them on the proper way to address you. That just isn't going to be productive and will distance yourself from these employees, and not in a good way.

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  • I do not think your example of "Difficult to work with" guy apply here if you are saying I am like that. I never deny any request and go out of the way to help. I am just expecting 'can you' instead of 'do this'. Nothing to do with being a team player or not, IMHO. – PagMax Jun 18 '20 at 16:47
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    @PagMax - Be careful not to fall into the trap of your own self-perception. Jay is indicating a perception that falls on people because of their actions. With this kind of thing, you are in real danger of becoming what we refer to in the US as "that guy". No one wants to be "that guy". – Joel Etherton Jun 18 '20 at 17:20
  • @JoelEtherton I understand. There is no action from my end (other than asking this in this forum!) so I do not know what trap I am falling in. I am simply asking is there a respectful way to do it. I know "That guy" Jay's example is extreme. and I do not think self-perception is a trap. Everyone needs it and keep updating it based on feedback they get! – PagMax Jun 18 '20 at 17:31
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    I think the implication is not that you are "that guy" currently, but that your problem is unsolvable-- there is no way to educate/inform your colleagues about their tone in emails being insufficiently polite without a high risk of being perceived as rude or petty yourself. – Meg Jun 18 '20 at 21:06
  • @Meg I know and hence I asked this in this forum if someone has a better suggestion! – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 10:27
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So, the first example you gave does not seem particularly out of the ordinary to me. "I'm working on project X, I need information about project Y, please send me whatever you know about it", is pretty ordinary imo.

The second example you gave, I would be more concerned about, if it is literally an example of something you received (you said it's not, but if it's similar to a real example then I would be concerned). This is an order, not a request. Whoever this is seems to think they can boss you around, and, unless that person is your boss, that might be something that needs to be handled (and even if it is your boss you might want to say something). Do be aware though, that people who do not speak English as a first language often talk like this; if they were to say it in person they would use a tone of voice which would make it not aggressive, but they may not understand that it doesn't work quite the same way in text. So if the sender is not a native English speaker, be gentle, but either way I would follow up with them privately over their tone. Don't "I'll do it but you have to ask me nicely" them, but at some point, and especially if this is a pattern, follow up.

EDIT: I just noticed this question is tagged "india". So I presume you are located in India. That gives more weight to my assertion that perhaps the people sending you these emails are probably not native English speakers; many Indians do speak at a native level, but many also do not, and even still some who speak at a "native" level have, let us say, "differing" understandings about what some words mean and how they are used in context.

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  • Yes I agree. While I am from India too, I worked around the world and back home I often see a difference between way people communicate here vs west. Although mostly it is consistent with global tone, once in a while it differs. Yes second example is more concerning to me too. First one has little more context which I guess I am not able to put it out clearly. Thanks for the answer though! – PagMax Jun 19 '20 at 17:53
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A technique that can be helpful is to depersonalise the situation. Ensure a norm is publicly defined indepeneent of what you see as a mis-step.

It will depend on org size,but for example,in no particular order,

  • Write an internal wiki page on good email etiquette
  • present at a suitable five minute training session
  • get buy in from relevant stakeholders: mgmt, hr, training, etc
  • talk to other senior staff and get their read
  • talk to your own peer group

Yes, some will struggle to ever get the message. However for many junior members of staff they just need to be told what the norm is rather that adopt poor practices they observe.

Note that a culture of respectful communication is important in any medium in a business; you are right to pick up on it.

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  • This is a good answer. Particularly if your manager will offer a little backing to some "professional communication" presentation. You can sell it as helping improve customer service, consultancy skills, career path etc. Make sure it's decoupled from the emails -- it shouldn't be too obviously a direct response! – Thomas W Jun 21 '20 at 23:20

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