Don’t Look at Me in That Tone of Voice – 7 Tips for Better Communication


Heather Frederick and Melanie Shaw

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Last week I received an email from a colleague who also happens to be a dear friend. Her email was filled with issues she was facing at work and she was requesting my opinion. Her email ended with an anecdote she thought I would find amusing. I replied and minutes later she called me to find out “What was going on because the email was so curt and abrupt.” I was stunned! I thought my prompt response was not only appropriate, but supportive! Yes, I was answering from my iPhone while dinner was on the stove. Yes, I was typing on those tiny keys while at the same time giving out homework orders to my twins…one who was claiming she was dying of hunger and the other who was close to torturing the (thankfully hardy) family cat. I had spent 7 minutes on a thoughtful reply; how could she think my reply was curt?

Computer mediated communication is a burgeoning field of study. As communication becomes more and more mediated via a keyboard and computer screen, researchers are discovering the importance of tone in how we communicate through the written word. Many of us are aware of the importance of nonverbal communication: Most would agree that how we dress gives a nonverbal cue to anyone who looks at us and most recognize that body language (like crossing one’s arms during an argument) sends out a clear signal. But do you stop and think about how what you type in an email or message will be received on the other end?

Those of us who serve as leaders and educators of online institutions know that part of our job is to ensure students are prepared to participate in a professional work environment, which includes practicing respectful communication skills. Scholarly and diplomatic communication is an important skill and one which students need to master before they graduate (whether with a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctoral Degree).

Here are some tips to prevent you from making the mistake I did, when I sent that email reply (note that many of these tips could apply to other messages, homework activities, and feedback).

  1. Start each email with a salutation (when in doubt, be formal).
  2. End each email with your first and last name (email addresses do not always reveal your identity).
  3. Refrain from the use of CAPS and bold. If you need to highlight something, consider the less offensive use of italics.
  4. Use grammar and spell check. An email that does not use punctuation and that contains spelling errors communicates a message that no academic wants to send.
  5. Use emoticons sparingly and only when it would be appropriate given the relationship between the sender and reader.
  6. Do not feel you have to click “send” right away. Sometimes an email is sent to express a complaint, an objection, or confusion about something (many find it easier to write out a frustration than pick up the phone and talk it out). If you feel frustrated, or even angry, it’s fine to write an email at that time, expressing your thoughts. However, it is also a good idea to click “save” instead of “send”.  Later, take your tension temperature, and when you’re feeling calm again, take another look at the message. Make any necessary changes in tone to be sure that you are communicating in a professional manner before hitting that send button. This will not only assure that your message is better received, but will help you avoid regrets over a message written in the heat of the moment.
  7. If you are not sure how your email will be received, consider asking an objective friend, colleague, or family member to read it and give you their opinion (and if their opinion is that your message could be perceived as less than professional, be open to hearing that criticism).

We are all busy adults juggling many things at once. But when it comes to communication be sure you are sending the message that you want to send, and that includes ensuring the tone of your response communicates the intended message.

Online and blended education programs create additional opportunities, challenges and roles for student services. OLC offers many great workshops to help online teachers communicate and support students. You might be interested in Strategies for Supporting And Advising Students – a workshop that addresses these new roles and provides best practices, sustainable solutions, and transformations made possible through technology for student advising and support.


Dr. Heather Frederick received her B.A. in Psychology from SDSU and both her M.A. in General Psychology and her Ph.D. in Social/Developmental Psychology from Brandeis University (with concentrations in quantitative methods in psychology and lifespan development). 

Heather has taught at SDSU, was employed as a research analyst for a private health care company, and ran her own independent consulting business. At Walden University she served as an Associate Director for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She has held multiple roles at Northcentral University (NCU), including Dean for the School of Psychology and Vice President of Academic Affairs. In her current role (Dean, Graduate School) she works with an amazing team of incredibly talented Chairs and committee members who mentor doctoral candidates through their dissertation research. She feels incredibly lucky to have job that allows her to be pursue her passion for assisting graduate students in completing their degree. 

A native Southern Californian, she resides in Laguna Niguel, CA. Her ten-year-old twin daughters, who share her love of music, keep her busy. She loves rekindling hobbies that for far too long she said she didn’t have time for: dancing, inline skating, playing harmonica, hiking, biking, creating gluten-free and sugar-free treats, and reading entire books in one sitting.

Melanie Shaw
Melanie Shaw

Melanie Shaw has over fifteen years of educational experience ranging from classroom and graduate level teaching to counseling and administration. She is Director of Online Curriculum and Instruction at Clemson University. In addition, Melanie is a dissertation chair, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses online, and develops curriculum for a variety of higher education institutions. She serves as an education consultant and as Executive Editor for the eLearning Institute.

Melanie’s primary research interests include online teaching and learning, organizational leadership, and distance learning instructional practices. She is the author of several books, articles, and chapters including: The Genre of Instructor Feedback in Doctoral Programs: A Corpus Linguistic Analysis; An Evaluation of Student Outcomes by Course Duration in Online Higher Education; Establishing an Online Professional Development Community to Promote Faculty Engagement and Excellence; Motivational Factors of Generation Y Educators: Implications for Teacher Retention; Distance Learning Courses: A Survey of Activities and Assignments; and Online Course Activities: A Survey of Assignment and Assessment Types. In addition to Melanie’s publications, she has presented at the U.S. Distance Learning Association Conference, Online Learning Consortium Conference, the Ubiquitous Learning Conference, International Learning Conference, and the Distance Learning Administration Conference. She is the winner of the Wagner Award for Outstanding Instructional Support and the Online Learning Consortium’s Effective Practice Award.

Melanie received a Ph.D. in Education with a specialization in Curriculum and Teaching from Northcentral University, a master’s degree in Education Administration from Grand Canyon University, and a second master’s degree in School Counseling for the University of West Alabama. She received her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies and Music from Excelsior College. She holds teaching certificates in online teaching, elementary education, and guidance counseling. She lives near Colorado Springs with her husband and two daughters.

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