Skip to main content

Not too long ago, a friend of mine was stage managing a dance performance at a university. During one of the final rehearsals, the lead dancer had to leave the show.

The director, who was also a faculty member, sent an email to the dancer expressing her sympathy and telling her not to worry and that they’d replaced her and gotten the show back on its feet. Understanding it to be a sensitive moment, the director even had the stage manager proof read the note.

All looked good, and away it went.

The dancer forwarded the email to the stage manager. She was utterly speechless at the rude, passive-aggressive nature of the note and was horrified that a faculty member would send such a thing. She wanted to report it.

As managers in theater and live events, every one of us has similar stories of email intent gone awry. Apparently for good reason:


Dr. Albert Mehrabian, a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA published a study in 1972. In it he explored communication between people and made 2 key discoveries.

  1. There are 3 key elements of communication:
  • Words
  • Tone of Voice (how the words are spoken)
  • Nonverbal Behavior (facial expressions)
  1. Nonverbal behavior plays a disproportionately large role in communication and how we interpret words – so much so, that when words and behavior are incongruent, behavior tends to trump words.

The typically cited proportions of importance are 55% Nonverbal behavior / 38% Tone of Voice / 7% Actual Words.


Keep the story and the science in mind every time you are about to hit the big send button. Remember that when we send an email…

  • …there is no way to include nonverbal behavior.
  • …there is no such thing as “tone of an email”.
  • …it’s meaning and intent are neutered by 93%!!!!
  • …the words are free to be interpreted in any way someone chooses.
  • …even when perfectly worded, it can (and often will) be misconstrued.

One of our most important jobs as managers is effective communication. Effective doesn’t mean fast or easy. It means “successful in producing a desired or intended result.”

At Tinc, my production management company, we follow a rule that if you need to communicate about something of an even mildly sensitive nature, we do it in person (or at least via video). That way you’ll have 100% of your communication toolkit at your disposal, and it’s far easier to read the situation.

We never hold contract negotiations over email. We always meet new clients face-to-face. We avoid in-depth budget conversations, and we never ever try to resolve a conflict. Nearly all of our non-face-to-face meetings (both internally and with clients) are held via video call.

There are many great uses for email, but it shouldn’t be your sole method of interaction with your team. They are easy to send, but remember that ease always comes with a cost.


For a more in-depth read about email etiquite, check out Send by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe.