I got an interesting question from my ex-intern’s younger brother who is also a student at my alma mater (try following that chain). It was a simple question, and he was asking because he thought that he was too inexperienced to know the right answer. But I would guess that it’s a question that many, if not most, professionals have about messaging on LinkedIn. He asked:
What is the right tone to take? I do not know if I am supposed to be formal like on an email or more casual like I am talking with my friends on Facebook. What’s appropriate?
It’s an interesting question because digital communication is actually a pretty new thing. We’re still getting used to the ease and speed of email and instant messaging, and now we have this opportunity to engage just as easily with people that we don’t know very well on social media platforms.
It can be a challenging question to answer because there are so many different variables in our relationships and personalities. The key, then, is not to look for a specific rule that dictates how you should manage every interaction. Instead you should find general principles that can inform all of your interactions no matter the context.
We can look to our offline conversations to find these principles. There’s two that are key here.
#1 – When in doubt, err towards formal
If you don’t know the person well, or if you aren’t sure about how to start, lean towards being a little more formal and structured. Don’t assume an intimacy that you don’t have. That’s just going to push people away.
Think about a person that you had just met at a conference or a party who was being a little too friendly. It’s like someone who uses Dave right when they first meet me. They are assuming a familiarity that isn’t there yet. If we really were that familiar with each other, they’d know that I hate being called Dave.
Understand that formal doesn’t mean stuffy or stiff. It also doesn’t mean inauthentic. You don’t have to send a form letter or be robotic. But it means making sure that you are using proper grammar and structure. If you aren’t sure about how to structure things formally, a quick spin around a grammar blog or Grammarly is a good idea.
Romance languages like Spanish and Italian make this easier by actually having words that are appropriate for formal or informal settings (e.g. usted vs. tú). English doesn’t have that, so we have to pay a little more attention to the tone we use and give a little more care to how we approach someone. For example, you might say “Hey” to a friend at the beginning of a message, but with someone you don’t quite know, “Hi” or even “Hello” is more appropriate.
It’s a lot easier to go from formal –> informal than from informal –> formal. It works in the online world the same way as in the offline world. That’s why you should err towards more formal.
But how do you know when to get more informal?
#2 – Follow their lead
On LinkedIn, it’s common to reach out to a weak connection, someone that you know but aren’t BFFs with. It might be a work peer, someone from your school days, or a colleague in your field that you met at a conference. Since you don’t interact with them a lot in the real world, you might not know where you stand with them.
Keep it simple and take a cue from offline conversations here as well: Match how they are talking with you. When we’re talking to someone in person, we naturally and unconsciously match their tone and approach. We actually notice when someone doesn’t match us. If you are speaking softly and they are loud and boisterous, there’s a dissonance that is glaring.
Because there is a back and forth aspect to the LinkedIn message system, you can look at the tone and structure of their messages as the cue for your involvement. When you are engaged in a LinkedIn conversation (this does work for email as well), mirror their responses. If they keep things formal and structured, so should you. If they don’t say “Hi David” at the beginning of each message, neither should you. And if the text becomes a little more relaxed and colloquial, go with it.
But let them lead. Too often we try to get too familiar too fast, and then we’ve lost trust. By taking their lead we are letting them decide what they are comfortable with. If they want to get comfortable right away, go along with them. If they aren’t there yet, don’t push it.
Keep these two principles in mind, and you’ll be able to navigate your LinkedIn network much more confidently. Think about how you would engage with your LinkedIn connections if they walked into the room with you, and you’ll be just fine.