What makes good professional communication? A healthy respect for boundaries.

Professional communication is based on customs and socially agreed-upon values. When you meet someone, how do you introduce yourself? In the U.S., we shake hands to greet people we don’t know.

Imagine walking into a job interview and introducing yourself by pulling the interviewer into a bear hug. Does that seem ridiculous? Uncomfortable? Silly? If so, what you’re feeling is a cultural boundary. When we don’t know people, we have a set of behaviors that we use in order to communicate. These behaviors are culturally established, and in the U.S. that means handshakes, not hugs.

Written communication also has rules of behavior that relate to cultural boundaries. When people don’t meet our expectations for behavior, we become uncomfortable.

Consider the following email:

I have an “eye exam” appointment this morning, after that I’ll go pick up the sandwiches for the meeting at noon and bring them in. Then I have to meet Grandma at the doctor’s office at 10. I will be back in time to deliver trays to the Education Room for the noon meeting. After that, you may find me in my office sipping on a cold frosty “one”. Okay, maybe not but it sure sounds good.

This is a real message sent from one professional to the entire office. Does it make you feel as uncomfortable as hugging that interviewer? It should.
Three aspects of this message cross social boundaries:

  • No greeting. Greetings establish the tone of the message. You are starting a conversation with a group of people. Face-to-face, we begin by smiling, waving, nodding, shaking hands, raising our arms for a hug, or saying hello. These behaviors establish that we are about to talk to each other. In email, the greeting does the same thing. A greeting should include a word or phrase like “Hi” or “Good morning” and the person or group’s name.
  • Too personal. The writer dictates everything they are going to do. Remember, this is a message from an office worker to the rest of the office. Do all of their coworkers want to know about the doctor’s appointment and the family member? No. Most people in the office probably don’t care. Personal details are the privilege of friends.
  • Too I-focused. The first three sentences begin with “I,” which signals to the reader that the writer is only concerned with the writer. Professional messages, ones that enhance our credibility, build trust, and create strong working relationships, show that we care about the reader. These messages pay more attention to what the reader needs than what the writer wants. Only two details in this message matter to the reader: 1) lunch will be in the Education Room at noon and 2) the writer will be away in the morning.

Here’s a you-focused, work-content only, revision of this message with a greeting:

Hi, colleagues,

Lunch will be available today, 10/12, in the Education Room at noon.

I’ll be in my office as soon as I arrive with lunch. While I am out this morning, Grant will be available to assist you.

A message like this doesn’t feel like a suffocating bear hug that you can’t get out of; it feels like a handshake. And that’s exactly how our professional messages should be.

This guest post is by Jenny Morse, Founder of Appendance, Inc. In her own words:

Words, language, communication, writing, books, poetry, brains. My background is in creative writing–poetry, non-fiction, and I’ve written a YA novel. Now I train professionals in business writing at companies around the country and at CSU. My expertise is helping people learn writing strategies that enhance their own credibility and build relationships.

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