Article by Karin Vandraiss
Continue Reading Below
A few minutes into my morning commute, I glanced up from my book and inwardly groaned. When I should have been looking out across the water at the Seattle skyline, I was headed down an unfamiliar side street toward a neighborhood nowhere near my office.
I pulled out my phone to send my boss a quick email: "Good morning, just wanted to let you know I'll be in a few minutes late. Bus trouble!" She shot back a cheery, "No problem, see you soon!" I then sent my coworker a text with a few choice words and emojis about my inability to master public transportation.
After nearly a year at my current job, I know it's customary to send a note if you'll be arriving significantly later than usual as a courtesy. Although my boss and I are on very friendly terms, a quick email is more appropriate than texting – but I do have friends who wouldn't think twice about sending their boss a text, emojis and all, or wouldn't have sent an update in the first place because that would be considered overkill in their office.
No two company cultures are quite the same, and figuring out what "professional" means in your office – or even just on your immediate team – isn't always easy. "Professionalism" will differ depending on your line of work as well – for example, my internal emails laden with Full House gifs probably wouldn't fly at my best friend's law firm.
It took me a few weeks of careful observation to get the lay of the land at my new job. To do so, I had to observe everything from what my new coworkers were wearing to whether they took lunch or ate at their desks. I took mental notes (more "trendy jeans" than "traditional business casual wear"; same went for going out versus working through lunch). A similar mentality seemed to apply to communication style as well, which leaned toward casual rather than overly formal.
I took particular note of the emails I was receiving, because today there is such a thing as being "too professional." Although there's still a time and place for formalities, most people I work with have adopted a more "business casual" approach to communication (both in person and from behind a computer), one that makes it seem like you're actually interacting with another human being rather than a robot.
But finding that perfect combination of "personable" and "consummate professional" is a learned skill. Luckily, I happen to work with a few people who seem to have mastered the concept, and I've picked up a few things from them:
The Art of the Email
Navigating the subtle nuances of email is an art form; one punctuation misstep and things can go downhill quickly. I once spent a full day agonizing over a five-line email, my finger hovering over send like the free world depended on my message being executed perfectly.
1. Watch Your Tone
Although you shouldn't give any email that much thought, you should think a little about the tone you're going for in the message and the appropriate level of formality. When first writing someone, I aim for conversational, letting my personal voice show through while retaining the basic elements of formality, like a proper greeting, punctuation, spelling, etc. Depending on the response, I'll adjust my correspondence accordingly. In my experience, matching another person's tone can often make for better communication. (But don't feel the need to sacrifice your intellectual integrity for someone intent on typing "u" instead of "you.")
2. The Period Is No Longer Neutral
You can feel the chill from across the office when someone sends you a sentence purposefully cut short with a period. Once unthreatening, this punctuation mark can now convey a healthy dose of snark, sternness, or even aggression. Take a second glance at your next message to make sure that period doesn't make you sound unintentionally menacing or uptight.
3. It's Okay to Use Exclamation Points (Sparingly)
Exclamation points can be effective ways to express enthusiasm (or give an otherwise flat email a sense of levity) if used with restraint. I try to stick to one per email, and I draw a firm line at emoticons.
4. Your Sign-Off Can Say a Lot
A few years ago, I wouldn't have thought anything of it, but today, ending an email with "Thanks" can make you seem inadvertently curt. I usually use "Best" or "All the best" if I'm feeling fancy. I don't see "Sincerely" too often anymore, except on college intern applications.
But Don't Get Too Comfortable
Whether it's via email or face to face, there are still a few areas where you can never be "too" professional, no matter how it's defined in your workplace. At the end of the day, you're still at work. Being able to preserve working relationships should always be high on your priority list.
5. Be Tactful
Even if your office has a laid-back vibe, it's pretty hard to come back from an uncomfortably flippant or politically incorrect remark. Use your filter. Whether you're in a brainstorming session or just chatting in the break room, you're still in a work environment. There's a level of professional respect expected; you never know what might offend another person.
6. Be Constructive
If there's an issue, offer a solution – don't just continue the negativity. It makes people uncomfortable and detracts focus from solving the problem. Avoid comments that could come off as belittling or condescending, especially in group settings.
7. Keep Your Cool
Throwing a temper tantrum at work will instantly mark you with a glowing neon sign above your head that reads, "Can't keep it together like an adult." A "temper tantrum" includes slamming drawers, stomping around, sighing loudly, and/or aggressively muttering to yourself. If you have an issue with someone or something, take a walk, count to 10, or do whatever it is you need to do to keep yourself from losing it. If you feel the need to raise the concern with a superior, collect your thoughts beforehand and head into the room with a cool head.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.
Karin Vandraiss is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a background in food and travel. She recently returned to the West Coast after receiving her master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism. She spends her off-hours exploring local restaurants and bars and hiking her way through the Pacific Northwest.