It may seem obvious that writing in all caps is a mistake, but the following story really happened to me.
I recently taught an email effectiveness course for an accounting firm in Los Angeles. It was mandatory, so everyone in the office was there. During the program, I told the participants “Don’t write your subject line in all caps.”
A senior partner in his mid-50s, Jeffrey, practically jumped out of his chair. “But I always write my subject lines in all caps!”
A collective sigh went around the room. “Yeah… we know,” said his colleagues.
I explained that when you write in all caps, the reader feels he’s being yelled at. “But I don’t mean to yell,” Jeffrey said, “I just want to be emphatic.”
His boss chimed in. “But everyone feels yelled at. Either you can wait for the rest of the world to come to your point of view, or you can adapt to the rest of the world. I recommend the latter.”
Jeffrey would not give up. “But people get so many emails --- I have to write my subject lines in all caps to get people’s attention.”
“Yes, you can get people’s attention with all caps,” I persisted, “but it is not the kind of attention you want. It is negative attention. When you write in all caps, you are automatically irritating your reader and making her less disposed to receive your message. Is that what you really want?”
He sat back in his chair and thought silently for a long time.
At the break, many staff members came to thank me for giving this feedback to their colleague. “We get together in the break room and talk about how awful his emails are,” said one person. “I hate getting emails from him – I always put off reading them,” said another. “His emails really make me resent him,” said a third.
When I met with Alan, the partner in charge of the office, after the training, he said he’d had no idea that Jeffrey’s email habits had had such a damaging effect on the office culture. No one wanted to complain to the boss, but everyone resented Jeffrey’s all-caps habit. Alan thanked me for bringing this issue to light during the email effectiveness training.
A month after the training, I contacted both Jeffrey and Alan. Jeffrey had stopped writing in all caps, and his standing in the office had significantly improved.
More importantly, his readers -- both within and outside the office -- were more receptive to his messages when they no longer felt he was shouting at them.
From my 20+ years of training experience, I can tell you that Jeffrey’s story is not unique.
People use all caps to be emphatic, without realizing that others interpret it as yelling. They do not see that they are creating resentment and resistance rather than receptivity. So what do we learn from this training experience?
- Writing in all caps offends readers.
- Writing in all caps generates negative attention instead of positive attention.
- One employee’s writing in all caps can poison an office culture.
©2016 Elizabeth Danziger Do not reproduce without author’s permission.