OWNER'S MANUAL

Why Negative, Snarky Emails Will Always Backfire

Because emotional emails always make things worse
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I feel sure you've sent at least one email you wish you hadn't. Your emotions got the best of you. Maybe you were snide, maybe you were sarcastic, maybe you were clearly pissed--whatever your feelings, email made it easier to express those feelings because you weren't face to face.

You wanted to vent. You needed to vent. So you sent it.

And then you desperately wished you could get it back.

I also feel sure that every time you've sent an email in which your negative emotions were on full display, you've eventually regretted it--especially if you sent it to someone you know.

Why? When you send negative emails:

Your message gets lost. Give me constructive feedback--feedback I can tell you are giving because you care about me and want me to improve--and I may not love it, but I'll listen. Scold me, and all I'll focus on is the criticism. The meat of the message is lost.

(Think about it. If you say, "Next time, try...," I won't be defensive. But if you say, "How could you be so stupid? Next time, try...," all I'll remember is that you think I'm stupid.)

Your context gets lost. Without body language, without tone of voice, without all the clues we use to determine whether a person is being sarcastic or humorous or clever or mean, the recipient is left to his or her own devices. If in doubt, the recipient assumes the worst.

And if the recipient assumes the worst, you aren't there to notice--and to correct any misunderstandings.

Your conflicts escalate. Admit it. You've received a snarky email and spent an hour crafting and fine-tuning your devastating response. And then you got one back.

And soon, whatever the problem was, it's forgotten--all that matters is trying to "win." Which, of course, means you both lose.

Your words last forever. You may not save particularly hateful emails you've received. But if you've sent one to an employee, I guarantee he's saved it. He's probably forwarded it to his personal account, just in case. And he definitely pulls it up once in a while. And seethes. Email creates a permanent record, ensuring that though an emotional outburst may in time be forgiven, it is never forgotten.

So what should you do? Be the Ellen of email. Whether you enjoy her talk show or not, Ellen DeGeneres is always positive. She laughs with people, not at them. Even her sarcasm is laced with a dollop of humanity. The old cliché "I kid because I care" actually seems true.

And that's how your emails should be. The next time you get upset and start to write an email:

1. Go ahead and write it, but save it. Let the heat of the moment pass. Come back to it tomorrow. Make sure you still feel the same. You may--but once you've cooled off, you'll almost always decide not to express your feelings the same way.

Better yet...

2. Discuss the issue in person. Here's a simple rule of thumb. If what you have to say can in any way be construed as negative, say it in person. Don't fire a one-way missile.

Though face to face may be less comfortable than hiding behind email, the outcome will always be better.

And if you receive an emotional email...

3. Respond in person. Don't fire back. Don't start an email tennis match, especially with an employee or a customer. Get on the phone, or if possible, respond in person.

You'll be much more sensitive to the other person's feelings--and much more likely to actually resolve the problem while keeping a professional relationship intact.

IMAGE: Corbis
Last updated: Mar 18, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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