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Tone is the emotional content of a message. When we speak, the tone we use helps others understand our mood. When we write, we replicate tone by using punctuation or symbols, and by varying the formality of our messages.

An exclamation mark will never replicate what our voices can do! Emoji can be ambiguous too: 😬

Another challenge with email or other written communication is not the lack of tone, but rather, the implicit tone.* For instance, messages that are too direct can have a negative effect on recipients by coming across as rude or mean—especially if they’re coming from someone in a position of authority. Accuracy in the emotion conveyed with a message is crucial in helping us understand the reason behind the message and figure out an appropriate response.* You can use Grammarly to analyze your writing and get a tone score in real time. Tools like this help people pause and rewrite before sending.

Thankfully, distributed teams can learn from other preexisting online communities that have found success in replicating their moderation habits to help solve for tone, and documenting those in a Code of Conduct. For example:

  • The Rust Code of Conduct Work explicitly asks members to be kind and courteous, and lays down the rules for moderation.

  • Recurse Center codified their Social Rules, to help create a friendly, intellectual environment.

  • Buffer wrote and published their Code of Conduct, which shows us how it can aid in the moderation of tone in writing.

Writing a code of conduct for your team—and including it in your company handbook or team agreement—can help keep the conversations at work positive and productive.*

Mindful Communication

Consider the following versions of feedback on a proposal:

This is a terrible idea.

This is a terrible idea!

This is a terrible idea 😉

Now, think about each statement as it relates to the key communication concepts above:

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