Becoming Email Savvy – Seven Tips For Answering Inflammatory Email Messages

Email has given remarkable rapidity and permanency to everything we say using it. In only seconds, we can diss a rival, deep-six a relationship, send a Dear John letter, amp up a disagreement, trash a coworker, or generally toss around bad karma. The medium is so fast that we are too easily able to lash out in haste, and unfortunately, our impetuous responses can come back to haunt us. Here are seven things you can do to respond more effectively and circumspectly to inflammatory email messages:

1. Wait 24 hours before answering.

When you receive an email message that attacks, offends, or threatens, waiting a day before responding is often the best approach. When you allow yourself some cooling-off time, you gain a new perspective that will help you draft a level-headed, thoughtful answer. I have made waiting 24 hours a semi-firm rule, and I have been amazed at how often the solution becomes easy or the problem dissipates overnight.

2. Think about who should receive a copy of your reply.

It’s unsatisfying to respond to an offensive email message without an audience. Your position is only validated if you copy others so that they can see your cogent answer. Your pride gets involved, and you want everyone to know that you are a force to be reckoned with. Keep in mind, however, that once you write and send your reply, your message becomes irretrievable, and when you copy third parties, your words go out to the world for all to see. Perhaps you already are familiar with the sinking feeling that comes just after clicking on the send button and realizing that you have made a rash comment or an inaccurate statement.

3. Consider not answering at all.

When you receive a particularly nasty email communication, sometimes it’s best not to dignify the attack with a response. Sitting tight and waiting for the offending party to come to you can be a better strategy. A likely possibility is that your assailant’s writing skills are lacking, and when you meet to discuss the problem addressed in the message, the matter will seem much less pressing.

4. Confront the person personally or by telephone.

Rather than getting into an email contest, I’ve found it effective to pay a visit to the individual who sent the message. If the person is not physically available, then a telephone call will accomplish the same thing. Just say hello and ask about the contentious email communication. You’ll be amazed at how often the verbal explanation will be more palatable than the written one.

5. Draft your email message so your grandmother could read it.

Avoid cursing and using tough language in your email response. No one views harshness or brashness as qualities of a balanced individual who is in the right. Your friends, your colleagues, your boss, an administrative body, a jury, or a judge may read your message, and you will want whoever sees it to put the best construction on your character and point of view in the conflict. Don’t sink your own ship with a hot-headed lack of discretion.

6. Maintain the moral high ground.

If you answer civilly, you will retain your dignity and project an image of yourself as the more reasonable of the two parties. This is true even if you are in the wrong. In any subsequent evaluation of the two positions, you will gain a significant advantage by not stooping to the level of your attacker. If you are itching to kick butt and take names, do so verbally and outside of the hearing of third parties. Sometimes getting the matter off your chest is important, but at least carry out your counterstrike in a way that will not create a paper trail.

7. Be calm, cool, and collected.

Don’t let the disparaging email message ruin your day. You now have a strategy for dealing with such attacks, and the process includes the points made above. Remember, under stress, people do and say strange things, and that applies to you as well as to the offending party. Even if you both are under the gun at work, don’t let your aggressor drag you into the stress-pool as well.

Make a copy of this list of suggestions and post it in your workspace. If you receive an offensive email communication, review these seven points before writing anything. Following these suggestions will help you avoid a lot of pain, anguish, and embarrassment.

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2 comments… add one

  • Michael Bowker October 22, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    These are awesome suggestions. More problems are often caused by nasty return emails then by the initial nasty emails. I especially liked the suggestion to keep the moral high ground, followed by the one about writing it so your grandmother could read it. Great ideas. Besides, I’m partial to revenge in person anyway. A three iron to the kneecap is better than a stinging email any day — okay, just kidding. Follow Doug’s advice, not mine. Good three irons are hard to find.

    Reply edit
  • Jeremy Myers March 29, 2011 at 11:26 am

    Perfect timing on this one. I got some inflammatory emails yesterday, and this is what I needed to hear. Thanks!

    Reply edit

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