These 3 Communication Mistakes Undermine Your Credibility

Language is finnicky. Say something with one intended meaning that seems clear to you, and you find that the recipients interpret your words in the precise opposite manner.

If you know what you’re doing with language, you can craft any message to hit any tone, achieve any reception, convey any intention that you desire. Most people don’t know what they’re doing. Most don’t necessarily need to. Not everyone needs to spend hours contemplating the tonal and contextual implications of word use and sentence constructions with the sociopathic deconstructionist intensity that a writer naturally will.

Yet we live in an age where textual communication is everywhere. It is often preferable to speech – how many times have you sent a text or an email instead of picking up the phone? WhatsApp is the most prevalent messaging platform at present, with over 100 billion texts sent every day. Twitter, in spite of Musk, is the 6th most popular social media platform in the USA, and growing even faster than Instagram, clocking in a staggering 6,000 tweets per second.

Given that a great deal of communication is done via text-based means, it’s important to get your messages across in the most effective way possible. However, as we agreed earlier, language is fickle. This might not be a concern when interacting with friends or family, but if you’re communicating in a formal or semi-formal context, you need to know how to make your intended meaning land with minimal chance for misinterpretation.

Here are three mistakes that people make with alarming regularity, and how to avoid them:

Ellipses make you sound passive aggressive

What you think you’re conveying:

You’re keeping things open ended and light, you’re not being demanding, you’re taking the pressure out of your message. Sometimes a full stop can make a statement sound overly blunt, sometimes even hostile. You’re trying to avoid that. So you go with the trailing tone of the ellipsis, it is the grammatical equivalent of a gentle fade out at the end of a song, to the full stop’s abrupt slam on a chord and symbols.

What you’re actually conveying:

Ellipses convey doubt. Doubt can signal either vulnerability or hostility. This is all conditional on your phrasing, context, and several other factors. There’s no easy standard template for how these things are likely to be perceived. At the forgiving end of the spectrum, you just sound unsure of yourself. People might perceive a note of self-criticism in your email. At the unforgiving end, you sound passive aggressive. The more often you use ellipses, the more it cements an unintentionally bitchy tone. Do this for long enough and people start to pull back from you, they begin to tense up at every email and resist communication entirely

This even extends to benevolent acts. Let’s say you’re trying to be generous by leaving something in the kitchen and you send out an email about it. So you don’t sound overly blunt, you end with an ellipsis. But you don’t sound open ended, you actually sound resentful. Like you didn’t actually want to do the nice thing you just did.

Compare the following:

“There are doughnuts in the kitchen…”


“I’ve put some doughnuts in the kitchen for anyone who wants them.”

See what I mean? The second is open ended, it’s an invitation. In the first instance, just a full stop would actually be better than the ellipsis because the basic statement ‘There are doughnuts in the kitchen.’ is neutral at worst. All that that sentence is doing is conveying a piece of factual information. The action will convey generosity and people will do the maths. Any emotional addition to it is provided by the recipient, rather than the sender. An ellipsis, however, adds the air of doubt or a sense of unwillingness to the otherwise generous act of putting doughnuts in a kitchen.

If you’re in any kind of senior role, getting this right is important. The chances are that you’re sending a lot of emails to other staff and external resources. A reasonable percentage of those emails contain requests or feedback or the like. If you’re including a lot of ellipses in your emails that don’t need to convey doubt, then there’s a decent chance that you’re inadvertently signalling to your recipients that you view your interactions with them in some kind of negative light.


A good communicator understands that the curtness of a clause depends more on the length of the sentence and choice of words than the punctuation used. So the long solution is to spend years refining the subtext and intimations of any given combination of words. You probably don’t have that time. You probably don’t even care that much. That’s reasonable. The short solution is to just use a full stop. You might be a little hesitant, fearing people will mistake your tone for being angry, but often enough that’s just you projecting some manner of insecurity onto other people (everybody does it, it’s a whole thing that I can’t get into here, but don’t worry too hard about it, just be aware). More likely, people will just see a full stop at the end of a sentence and parse it as a neutral statement because we’ve been instructed from a very young age that full stops are, in 99% of cases, just a utilitarian feature of a sentence that lets your know the other person has ended their statement

Quotation marks are not emphasis

What you think you’re conveying:

All capital letters make you sound like a delusional boomer whose dived down the Facebook conspiracy rabbit hole and is moments from a screaming tirade about ‘wokeness’. Maybe bold sounds too shouty. Maybe italics aren’t detached enough. How do you get the right emphatic tone without alienating people? Quote marks. They’re a good middle ground without cultural baggage, right?


What you’re actually conveying:

If you’re not quoting something directly, quotation marks convey disbelief. The result is that misused quote marks make you sound hostile or arrogant. In the right context they sound absurd.

Example I, hostility:
At Christmas my company received an email from our CEO. It was a standard end of year ‘thank you for the hard work’ affair – a nice gesture. Unfortunately, he’d written the following:

“I want to record my gratitude and admiration for the way everyone has “pulled together” to prepare for a flying start to 2023. […] The resultant “caring” atmosphere has made the company a very special place for us all.”

So while he was genuinely trying to show gratitude and end the year on a positive note, he inadvertently subverted that intended meaning. Putting quotations around ‘pulled together’ and ‘caring’ instead suggested that he’d perhaps heard someone else note those things as positive elements, but personally disagreed. Naturally, everybody understood he hadn’t meant to subvert his own message, but there were some wry chuckles going around.

Example II, absurdity:
I saw a screenshot of an email once where someone’s CEO had put quote marks around the noun ‘Friday’. Outside of instances where you need to specify a word in context, there are very few, if any, occasions in which you need to put any kind of quote marks around random words. Presumably, what this man thought he was doing, was emphasising the importance of Friday. What it actually suggested was that he did not believe in the concept of Friday. As if Friday were some kind of global conspiracy and this CEO, looking down from a lofty vantage, knew better.

Do you do this? Don’t worry: a staggering number of people make the same mistake. Now you can be better.


Use italics. Use bold. Use underlines. Phrase your sentences better. Anything but quotation marks.

Jargon: You don’t sound like the expert you think you do

What you think you’re conveying:

Expertise. You know your field so well and you’re so comfortable in your niche that you just speak corner-office gibberish out of habit. You’re baking in your actionable items’ blue sky thinking through your results-oriented entrepreneurial spirit. You’re trying to convey the idea that you speak corporate jargon the same way roadmen speak roadman slang. You might even have referred to yourself as a “thought leader”…

What you’re actually conveying:

You’re a con artist.

Harsh? Deal with it. This one applies across the board, not just in written form. In limited places, jargon works. It does indeed suggest familiarity and comfort with your field. There’s a quote often misattributed to W.C. Fields that you’re probably familiar with: “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” New rule: If you’re sitting there projectile vomiting “business” terminology that, fundamentally, doesn’t do a better job at enlightening the audience, then you need to drill down into your own bullshit and table the bollocks.

Obfuscation doesn’t work anymore. It might have worked pre-Internet. These days we’re surrounded by oceans of dazzling bullshit and none of it makes an impact anymore. Our politicians talk in nothing but abstracts and vagaries, other people trying to sell you the idea that they’re smart speak only in niche terminology. In our slightly less naïve age, we are well past the prospect of being sold by these tactics. People know what it looks like now. They know that people who are regurgitating a stream of word salad are almost always covering up for the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about. When you fire-hose jargon, everybody listening understands one thing and one thing only: you are obfuscating, not communicating.

In the worst cases, jargon-hosing reads as contempt. Consider the idea that if you are in a position of responsibility and you’re overly reliant on pointless jargon, that you are inadvertently telling people that you not only don’t know what you’re doing, but you also think everybody else is stupid enough to fall for your obvious Patrick Bateman act. It doesn’t look good.


Use jargon only when it is specific to what you’re saying. It’s fine in limited amounts, even expected. Which might make jargon-use sound a bit like a tightrope, but it’s not difficult. If there’s a long complicated process that doesn’t have a generic analogue or isn’t subject to x number of contextual variables or vagaries, then field-specific jargon is fine because people understand that it’s simply the easiest way to convey a lot of information that they are already familiar with. It is one of the few instances in which jargon serves to acknowledge a shared body of knowledge than to erect some kind of linguistic filter between you and the people you’re trying communicate with. This is why fields like philosophy and finance are so overburdened with incomprehensible masses of impenetrable verbiage – a great deal of it refers to very specific ideas that only make sense in their specific context and author-intended meanings.

Where finance is concerned, this goes some way to explaining why people look at the acronym-laden word-salad vomited forth by the likes of Wall Street or the “finance” sphere of social media influencers, and conclude that there may be, at best, five hundred words of useful meaning for every every hundred thousand uttered. Where philosophy is concerned, it leads to interesting things like Roger Scruton’s attack on ‘continental’ philosophy, and his branding the work of Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze et al. as a product of the ‘Parisian nonsense machine’.

I get it: The world is full of abstract processes that don’t fit neatly into a set template and are often subject to whatever details are relevant. But for these processes, you can usually find more general terms that people use in day-to-day conversation. Outside of those specific instances that don’t have generic analogues, you want to be careful with how much niche terminology you’re using if your intended audience isn’t firmly embedded within that field.

Fools, conmen, and clarity

So there you go; three simple things to consider when you write emails in the future. Keep them in mind and you can avoid looking slightly foolish or inadvertently creating distrust. Do you agree? Have you ever made any of these mistakes? What other mistakes do you see?


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