Assertive language

One of the most common questions we are asked during training is what tone should I use when writing at work?’. It is always followed by a discussion about the different tones, and which ones should be used for clients, colleagues and senior managers.

Some experts scale tone from very formal (please accept my deepest appreciation) to text message casual (thx). These experts normally suggest using a tone somewhere in the middle of this band ranging from ‘official’ to ‘friendly but formal’. They suggest your choice of tone should depend on who you are writing too.

I disagree. There is only one tone to use in your workplace writing – assertive. An assertive tone is emotionally honest and has no hidden agenda.  The alternative tones are never acceptable:

  • aggressive tone is rude and is a misconduct issue
  • passive tone tries too hard not to upset the feelings of the reader, and therefore doesn’t tell them how you feel
  • passive aggressive tone masks bad news with a pleasant voice.
Assertive tone

If your reader has done good work; tell them:

I’ve just had a call from one of our clients, they’re very happy with your team’s work. So am I, you’ve settled into your new role really well. Please pass on my appreciation to your people.
Don’t deprive them of that message by saying: I’ve just had a call from one of our clients smiley face emoji 

If you are unhappy with your reader, they need to hear that. If they read your email and then go skipping down the corridor with a smile on their face – you didn’t get your message across.

Forget formal, official, friendly but formal and all the other vague descriptions of tone you might have heard about. It doesn’t matter who your reader is, write what you mean using polite language. Anything else is dishonest.

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