Earlier this month, the Moncton, N.B.-based tech company Lymbix launched ToneCheck, a free program that aims to save people from sending emotionally charged emails they might later regret. Like a spell-check for emotions, ToneCheck flags words and phrases that may be interpreted as angry, sad, fearful or humiliating. The user can then edit out the offending language, or adjust the tolerance threshold for negative language.
Lymbix CEO Matt Eldridge says ToneCheck was born out of necessity from his own struggles as a franchise salesman. Though Eldridge excelled at closing deals face-to-face or over the phone, potential buyers were put off when he put his pitches in writing. “When it came to emails, I was losing deals because my tone was being misinterpreted,” he says. “I would come across as aggressive or pushy or harsh, and because of that people were walking away from potential deals.” From his email etiquette troubles, Eldridge saw an opportunity. He quit his job and co-founded Lymbix, which was incorporated in February 2009.
Eldridge says tone can be lost in text-based communication due to lack of body cues, gestures or pitches in voice that normally act as emotional indicators. “If you were to say to somebody, ‘It has been annoying me for some time,’ that evokes a certain emotion.” Likewise, substituting words like “upsetting” and “troubling” can change the meaning and tone of the same phrase, he adds. “If you use the word ‘concerning’ instead, the emotion is much different and much more clear.”
ToneCheck’s “connotative lexicon” of words, phrases and slang comes from ToneADay, a Wikipedia-style website owned by Lymbix that relies on registered users to rate the tone of words and phrases. Lymbix pays users $0.02 to rate a word, with the option of donating earnings to one of Lymbix’s chosen monthly charities. Eldridge says ToneCheck will evolve as more people provide feedback and ratings. As of last week, ToneADay users had rated over one million words and phrases. For now ToneCheck only works with Microsoft Outlook, but Eldridge says applications for Gmail, Hotmail and Mac Mail will be in the works to keep text-happy email users, well, happy.