The reason words matter, and how to make matters about words

It’s true—tone and body language affect our interpretation of what is being said or shared. So, the words are skewed by the mood, as I like to say.

Not ever, though, is a note, an email, a text, letter, announcement or instant message ever received in exactly the same time, mindset and energy that it was sent, so it’s not only timing, and context, that affect our communication, those words we choose really do matter.

The difference in opting for “If your time and interest permit, please join us for …” and “We are filling a table to support …” can evoke the sense of inquiry in the former and obligation in the latter.

Most of us have received that email with the subject line “Opportunity for you” only to open it to realize it is an ask, an inquiry or an outright expectation of our time, resources or both. Wouldn’t life be simpler, and have an ease to the navigation, if our words were clear, without double meaning or assumption?

It can be.

Let’s agree to replace expressions such as “If you are not too busy…” with “When your time permits,” and switch “I’d like to pick your brain” to “Since you are an expert in XYZ, if we could spend 20 minutes discussing that, it would be greatly appreciated,” and “Did you get my text/email” when we see someone to “You may or may not have received my text/email and, either way, you can skip it if you have five minutes to talk about XYZ now.”

The difference in these phrases, and these words, is that it allows the receiver to hear a context that is likely not attacking or mysterious. These words allow for us to be clear in what we are sharing/asking and, therefore, what the person is hearing/accepting.

Words and phrases such as “I’m so busy” and “I am too busy to …” don’t evoke a picture to the listener that you are organized and productive, rather they create tension and a mood of wanting to excuse you to get back to your disorganized, or overbooked, life that sounds neither fun nor empowering. Instead of letting someone “bundle you up in busy-ness,” thank them (appreciation is so welcomed, enjoyed and yet too rare) for asking so as not to scold or judge, them and simply turn the idea of busy into a reference to an opening in a schedule, how productive you are and/or what does fit/work rather than what does not match your availability.

Starting and ending requests is something I am often asked about and as recently as this month had both students and professors inquiring about two messages, in particular, and since this etiquette column is intended for both practical, and timely, etiquette as well as edgy topics to create a buzz, here they are: “Friendly reminder” and “Thanks in advance.” Dismiss them both.

These overused phrases are neither friendly nor coming from gratitude. They are presumption masked in politeness. It’s a veiled mask, so let people know that a timing notice is an update, that there is “Still time to complete,” and instead of thanking someone in advance for their consideration, write or say “Respecting you likely have multiple requests for your time, should you please let me know by day/time, that will be appreciated and if we don’t connect by then, I will follow up with you directly.” In other words, take ownership as you respect their demands on their energy and stick with words that are clear in planning, and meaning, in order to enhance relationships with words and set clear boundaries, and expectations, rather than hoping “what you meant” comes across to the other person in whatever time, space and mood they are in.

Debbie Lundberg is the founder and CEO of the Florida-based firm Presenting Powerfully. An 11-time published author, certified virtual presenter, certified life coach, certified leadership coach and certified image consultant, she is a performance coach who co-hosts the Business of Life Master Class podcast. Her latest book, Remote Work Rockstar, has become a guide for working and leading virtually.

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