What Should You Never Say in an Email?

Make sure you’re writing good emails that don’t get misunderstood.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #158

Email is everyone’s favorite way to communicate. Whoopee! Unfortunately, email is prone to misunderstanding. We write as if we’re having a conversation, but people read it as if they’re having a war. My friend had four job interviews with one company. The recruiting manager emailed saying, “In your last visit, you seemed nervous. What are your feelings about this position? I’m open to an honest conversation—our business is all about relationships, so it is important that we understand each other.” My friend made the mistake of emailing an honest answer to that question. She said, “The interview started late, each interviewer seemed to have a different idea of what the job was, and the whole process has been a bit drawn out.” Needless to say, she is no longer in the running for the job.

What Should You Never Say in an Email?

Mother used to say “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That’s because if you say something not-nice, people give you a wedgie and hang you by your underwear from a tree branch in the woods. My therapist is still helping me work through it.

The rule goes in triplicate for email. Email lasts forever and it’s admissible as evidence in a court of law. If you are going to share judgments and opinions via email, say nice things only. This sounds extreme; it is. But it’s better than having your arch nemesis pull out an old email you wrote when frustrated and use it as evidence that you can’t be trusted to be a responsible team member.

If your job is to evaluate someone or their work—you’re an editor working with a writer—then you may put those evaluations in email. Even then, if you want to reduce misunderstanding, it’s best to give the feedback by phone or in person, and then just send a dry, inoffensive confirmation email that recaps the feedback.

Why Emails Can Often be Misunderstood

The problem is that even nice things can be misunderstood. Bernice wrote a sincere love letter to Melvin. “The way you comb your hair is so special. Your skin condition is clearing up nicely. After years of looking, I’ve settled on you as the man of my dreams!” (read in a sincere tone of voice). That’s a nice letter. I wish I got more letters like that. Sadly, Melvin read it a bit differently, as a sarcastic note: “The way you comb your hair is so special. Your skin condition is clearing up nicely. After years of looking, I’ve settled on you as the man of my dreams!” (read in a sarcastic tone of voice).

Write Better Email by Testing it With Bad Voice Tone

Depending on the voice tone used to read the letter, it’s either a love letter or a scathing attack. Before you send an email, always, always, always read it back to yourself in a sarcastic, angry, or nasty tone of voice and make sure it can’t be misunderstood. No matter how nice your writing tone, humans always seem to read things putting the worst possible interpretation on it.

Never Discuss Right and Wrong in Email

If you say anything in an email about being right or wrong, it will blow up in your face. “I was right about this month’s sales forecasts.” “You were wrong about the quicksand in the little league outfield being shallow.” Any time you say you were right, you imply they were wrong. Any time you say they were wrong, well, you’re saying they were wrong. Either way, they’ll hate you forever.

A subtle point: advice intended as helpful can come across as being told they’re wrong. When you tell someone how they could do something better, it implies that they’re not doing it well on their own. That could be true. It could also be true that they’ll be so up set by the implication that they’ll photoshop your face onto a compromising picture and share it with 93,000 Facebook friends.

Use Specific Adjectives when Giving an Opinion

Use very specific adjectives when giving an opinion so there’s no doubt as to what you really mean.

If you’re commenting on someone’s clothes, the work they’ve done, their clothes, or their bathing habits, you’re giving an opinion. Of course, as we’ve already agreed, you’re only ever sharing good opinions. But even so, re-read what you’ve written and make sure you are using very specific adjectives. When you’re writing, you know what you mean, but your reader doesn’t. “That shirt made you look special.” Compliment? Insult? Who knows? The word “special” is too vague. Instead, write “That shirt made you look fantastic.” “Fantastic” is much harder to misinterpret and makes the compliment impossible to misunderstand.

[[AdMiddle]If you plan to destroy a relationship, do it yourself, don’t let email do it for you. Bernice is busy constructing a giant mosaic heart out of red pocket protectors, to show Melvin how much she really loves him after all. Don’t put opinion in email, or at least not negative opinions. Re-read even your positive emails with bad voice tone, to make sure they can’t be misinterpreted. And never suggest someone might be wrong—don’t even imply it—over email. A little time and effort now will save loads of relationship damage control later. And it just might save you your job.

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.