Think before you email

I can’t begin to count all the ways I’ve created messes using email.

You’d think that – since email is one of the oldest uses of the Internet – we’d all be whizzes at using it by now. But instead many of us seem to compete to find new ways to embarrass ourselves using email.

Let’s look at some of the ways we earn a failing grade with email.

Quick on the trigger

Email makes it easy to respond instantly when someone hurts our feelings or makes us mad. Just type out a few really witty sentences and hit the reply button.

In every case I can think of this is the wrong way to go. Writing an angry or sarcastic email – whether it involves work, personal friends or to a merchant we believe has done us wrong – is truly stupid. In exchange for a few moments of satisfaction, you create bad feelings that make things worse. Insulting someone isn’t an effective way to make things better. So even if you’ve been treated poorly or rudely, a rant by email from you just creates a bigger mess. And, when you are in a dispute with a merchant, that kind of an email makes it less likely you’ll get help.

So when something makes your blood boil, go ahead and write that email. But don’t send it. Save it as a draft and let it sit overnight. After all, if a day passes and – right or wrong – you still want to send it … hey, be my guest. My guess is that you’ll see the problems and fix them.

Reply to all and forwarding disasters

A reporter buddy of mine, while working for a newspaper in Washington state, fell into this trap. The big editor sent an email to everyone in the newsroom explaining some new policy that — to be kind — was stupid. My buddy offered his own negative critique to a newsroom friend — he slammed the new policy and made some extremely personal remarks about the big editor. Unfortunately, he managed to out-stupid the stupid policy by hitting Reply to All. So the entire newsroom was treated to his remarks. He now works for a much smaller newspaper far, far away.

There are other ways to equal his stupidity. You can, for instance, forward a message from a third party without noticing that contains personal information that shouldn’t be shared, or negative remarks that the person wouldn’t want others to see. It’s polite and smart to ask permission before sharing another person’s email.


There’s an epidemic when it comes to sending emails that contain massive grammar, spelling and reading comprehension problems. Just today, for instance, I received an email from a reader that I literally can’t follow. It used abbreviations that I can’t translate, sentences that didn’t make a lick of sense and spellings that were novel. I doubt that I’ll answer since I’d have to explain that their writing skills are so bad that I can’t figure out what they are saying. Even smart people — folks who could pass a formal grammar test — can fall into this trap of writing carelessly. And that’s a bad thing.

Call me old-fashioned but, especially when you write a person you do not know, it’s important to do your best with grammar and sentence structure. Let the message sit a bit and then read it hours later or even a day later. Keep in mind that since you know what you’re trying to say, what makes sense to you may not make sense to someone who is reading it cold. So craft your message with the thought in mind that it’s all new to the recipient.

Even when I can decipher messages with horrible spelling and grammar it isn’t pleasant to read. Remember, since I don’t know you, the message is the only clue I have when it comes to who you are and what you are like. That may not be a huge deal with writing me, but when you send emails that involve your work life it’s important to make a good impression. If you are incapable of writing clear sentences get a friend or family member to edit your email.

Take me off your list

Some of the worst spam that I receive doesn’t come from computer criminals; it often comes from well-meaning friends. I have some friends — nice people too — who send out group emails almost every day.

I get enough email as it is and I am not a fan of lists of jokes, the latest rumor, or cute pictures of someone’s cat. You may love that stuff and that’s fine with me. But if you are tempted to send out these group emails please check with people before adding them to the list. It’s an awkward position to be in — I value the friendships and don’t enjoy being forced to explain that I’d rather not get the emails.

One other problem based on these group emails is this: Many times I’ll be able to see every email address on the list. Now that’s OK when it comes to my address. It’s pretty easy to find. But many people — right or wrong — don’t want others to have their email address. And, more sensibly, they worry that a real email spammer might get a hold of the list. So use the BCC setting on your email program to cloak the addresses.

Email is both my favorite and least favorite service on the Internet. Used correctly it lets me keep up with friends around the world. But, in the wrong hands, it’s an ugly thing.

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