Emotional Formatting and Discretion in Business E-mails

My advice is sought quite regularly about what to do about a given business e-mail conflict, misunderstanding or situation. In every case I am provided one side of the story. We all know there are always two.

In most cases the crux of concern is the use of emotional formatting (bold, red text, all caps, excessive punctuation) to make a point. Without seeing the actual e-mail of concern, I am taking the situation at its face value as described to me. I don’t have the personal dynamics that would have me reading things into an e-mail that are not there. Nor am I privy to the level of emphasis emotional formatting leaves to interpretation. After all, we do perceive things differently based on our relationship with the person on the other side.

Leave emotion out and bring discretion in!

Many times your emotions can cause you to misinterpret intent, overemphasize emphasis or completely read between the lines rather than taking the words used at their face value.

If you find you are responding to a business communication out of pure emotion; stop and walk away and do another task. Wait until you can respond without your emotions reading into an e-mail something that may not be there.

How do you know the right way to respond to an emotionally formatted business e-mail when you are on the receiving end? Be sure to give your response careful thought and consideration – a.k.a discretion. Don’t reply in the same emotional manner, instead be a voice of calm and respond professionally and informatively by taking the high road an not responding in kind — by not using any formatting.

But the Emphasis is Clear!

You are a professional; you’re better than that. Professionals know how to use the written word to communicate their intent and tone without having to make fonts larger or aggressively red in color with multiple instances of unnecessary punctuation.

I see business onliners flexing their emotional muscles in e-mails every day. Using formatting of every kind to make sure we know they are making a point of making a point. Can’t they make a point without all that formatting? Maybe not… Being able to communicate with clarity sans the formatting crutch is a clear indicator of a professional.

The definition of discretion is:


  1. the power or right to decide or act according to one’s own judgment; freedom of judgment or choice: It is entirely within my discretion whether I will go or stay.
  2. the quality of being discreet, esp. with reference to one’s own actions or speech; prudence or decorum.

Professionals communicate in a calm, cool and collected manner, regardless of the situation or even if they are having a bad day. Pros make the effort to ensure that their tone, intend and meaning are appropriate for the task at hand. That’s where discretion comes in! Unfortunately it is difficult if not impossible to each discretion. Nor can you force people to use discretion.

If you are an “emotional formatter”, it would behoove you to start working on your vocabulary so you can choose the appropriate words to relay your intent or tone instead of relying on formatting to make your point.