Outlook could soon be the tone police for your emails

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

If you’re missing the days when Clippy would keep a watchful eye over your Microsoft Word scribblings like an overbearing parent, then you may be excited for something on the Outlook roadmap.

As spotted by TechRadar, the entry lists a “tone detector in Microsoft Editor for Outlook on the web,” and it’s due next month. “Microsoft Editor in Outlook on the web will now offer writing refinements and suggest conversation tone,” the description reads.

It sounds like Microsoft is planning on making suggestions to soften the edges of emails which tip over from professional and businesslike into brisque, cold or hostile. And that’s an admirable ambition: words, when deprived of additional social cues –  like tone of voice, facial expression and body language – can easily come across as something completely different to what we intend when combined with the reader’s pre-existing opinions of us. 

Flippancy and sarcasm are especially hard to pull off without overloading a sentence with explanation marks, and risking looking like an overenthusiastic simpleton. In an era when much of the world is resigned to working from home for the foreseeable future, it just makes sense for Microsoft to try and help police tone, to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.

But it’s also pretty clear that this change is also opening a can of worms. While you clearly won’t have to accept any recommended changes, a nagging voice telling you that you’re sounding surly or passive aggressive could make you second-guess yourself.  

Also, who should judge what tone sounds right? As I wrote recently, something as simple as a smiley face emoji can mean vastly different things to different age groups. It would be astonishing if written words didn’t also have demographic ambiguities aplenty, too. We know, for example, that younger generations sometimes find full stops in text messages to be passive aggressive, something which Clippy would struggle to get his little metal head around. 

And that’s before we take institutionalised sexism into account. A study from 2006 found that women are more likely to use exclamation marks in emails in order to seem friendly. When they drop the exclamation marks and up the formality, they’re sometimes viewed as aggressive

Perhaps Outlook’s upcoming tone detector will be nothing like this and, ironically, I’ve misread the tone of the description. But it’s fascinating to speculate about what unintended consequences – good or bad – Microsoft could set in motion by suggesting employees overrule their human gut and trust a computer algorithm when communicating with their fellow humans.   

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