Assertive language

One of the most common questions we are asked during training is ‘what tone should I use when writing at work?’ People ask us how to adjust their tone when writing to clients, colleagues and senior managers.

Some experts scale tone from very formal (please accept my deepest appreciation) to text message casual (thx). These experts suggest varying your tone depending on who your reader is. Perhaps ‘friendly but formal’ for colleagues and ‘official’ for senior managers or public documents.

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 it should be treated as misconduct
  • 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.

Use assertive words, not emojis or fancy font, to communicate tone. Emojissmiley face emoji are not a substitute for saying ‘well done’, and text in ALL CAPITALS IS THE SAME AS SHOUTING. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to tell the reader how you feel. If you are delivering bad news, your reader deserves to hear it delivered in a polite but honest way. 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.