New apps put a brake on rude emails

Pen to paper: special stamps by Dick Bruna for Japan’s national Letter Writing Day.

A new app can vet your emails to prevent you sending messages that are too angry or upsetting to inflict on the recipient. Has the death of the letter made us worse communicators?

You may be accustomed to running a spell check on the computer when you type up an essay, report or email. But you are less likely to have considered scanning what you write for its emotional tone.

While emails, texts and instant messages have taken over as the human race’s main form of written communication, the traditional letter has gradually died. That has led to fears that we are all upsetting each other too much. And maybe we fail to see the hurt we cause with brusque, angry or upsetting missives.

Even something as inherently negative as a rejection was once, at least, couched in the formality of a ‘Dear John’ letter; today’s Romeos are more likely to be unceremoniously given the brush-off in a text or unfriended on Facebook.

But now the technology boffins, who could be said to have created this sad state of affairs, are coming to our aid.

Tonecheck, for example, is an app that warns you if an email ‘could be interpreted as angry’, giving you the chance to think twice before sending an aggressive message. This might help not only in heading off online quarrels, it could also prevent innocently brief messages from being misinterpreted as rude by the recipient – a frequent problem with brief emails and texts.

And a group of researchers in Canada is going even further, developing a data-mining tool to analyse someone’s email traffic to find out whether their messages are exhibiting joy, fear, sadness or any other of the eight basic human emotions identified by psychologists.

So far, they have uncovered intriguing patterns in a few accounts, leading to claims that such a process could offer clues about someone’s mental health and the quality of their relationships at work and at home. They call it ‘taking the emotional temperature’ of your email traffic, for greater self-awareness.

Signing off

This is all a fuss about nothing, some argue. Inevitably, older generations are nostalgic about the supposed virtues of the letter. But life was slower in the past. Now people need to use their time more efficiently: the email, text and instant message are ideally suited to our hurried modern lives, and if a little bit of politeness gets lost on the way, that’s just too bad. If you are really worried about it, maybe these apps will help.

‘How depressing!’ others will protest. For centuries, letters have brought news, sent important instructions, cemented friendships and love affairs, and given historians important insights into society, politics, great events and ideas. If all that is moving inexorably online, the least we can do is pay as much attention to the quality, and the tone, of our electronic epistles as our ancestors paid to their pen and paper creations.

You Decide

  1. Is it ever acceptable to send an angry email?
  2. Was the past more civilised, or did better manners conceal brutality?


  1. Role play: can you act out receiving a negative text message or email and how you react? Would you respond in a similar tone?
  2. Imagine you have something angry to tell a friend or relative. Write down how you feel as if in: an SMS message; an email; a traditional letter; and a scripted face to face conversation.

Some People Say...

“Civility costs nothing and buys everything.’Mary Wortley Montagu”

What do you think?

Q & A

Sticks and stones may break my bones…
Well, you say that. But which of us has never looked at a text or email and felt a bit hurt or rejected by what we find there? Because there is no facial expression, tone of voice or other physical cue, and because they tend to be short on explanation, emails and texts can be shocking if they contain something negative.
You can’t be nice all the time.
Well, if you are setting out to be deliberately hurtful, then you may be OK with how upsetting some texts and emails can be. That’s bullying, and you probably need to address your attitude to others. There are some, of course, who genuinely think that good manners are overrated because they mask necessary confrontations. Such people are unlikely to win popularity contests, though.

Word Watch

Dear John
The name for this type of break-up letter is thought to have originated to describe American servicemen getting dumped long-distance by girlfriends at home who had met someone else while the soldiers were away fighting. A more affectionate letter would probably not begin so formally.
Data mining
This simply means processing a mass of information to come up with knowledge and insight that you can then use. In this case it means looking for use of words or phrases that reveal an emotional state or are likely to produce an emotional state in another.
The eight basic human emotions (joy, sadness, anger, fear, trust, disgust, surprise, anticipation) were identified by psychologist Robert Plutchik more than 30 years ago.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.