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Why Put People Down in Writing?

The other day I sent out my monthly ezine, Better Writing at Work, to about 8,000 subscribers. I received a few "unsubscribe" notices, as I normally do. People unsubscribe when they are changing jobs or buried in email. I know their reasons because my ezine mailing program allows people to comment.

I was annoyed by this unusual unsubscribe comment, left by someone named Amanda:

"I teach a professional writing class at work, and I thought this newsletter would give me additional tips or writing skills we were not already teaching. It didn't."

Am I wrong in thinking this is a putdown?

When I am out shopping, I do not say to the shop owner as I leave the store without making a purchase, "I thought I would find good things in your shop, but I did not." When I review a menu in the foyer of a restaurant, I do not say, "Sorry. Your menu has nothing to offer me" before I walk away.

Amanda might have written "Not what I expected," or she might have not commented at all. Why put me down? Why burn a bridge with a possible colleague or professional contact? Why spread ill will?

Being mean-spirited just doesn't make sense to me.

What do you think?

Syntax Training



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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

12 comments on “Why Put People Down in Writing?”

  • Ilse, good question. You made me think, especially since I teach classes and receive evaluations all the time, though virtually never negative.

    I guess my issue is that the comment felt unnecessary and offered nothing constructive or positive. It also seemed abrupt and impersonal.

    If Amanda and I are both teaching writing classes, trying to help the world write better, shouldn’t we join forces and encourage each other to do our best?

    Perhaps I am overreacting.

  • What’s the difference between this comment and a negative evaluation after teaching a class?

  • #1 Look for the lesson in comments that bug you. Why does it bother you that she didn’t find something ADDITIONAL or new in what you offered?
    #2 Look for the positive in the message. If she’s found “nothing new,” then you are apparently teaching the same things. You share writing goals and techniques, and her comment should reinforce your belief that you’re on the right track in communication. I’m also a communications professional and writer, and I love it when I read your posts and find we agree.

  • It’s so easy to sound curt online without intending to, especially when we’re busy. My first reaction to the comment was that it was socially clumsy rather than ill-intentioned. In any case, all you can do is sigh, then perk up, smile, and move on. Cheers!

  • I would just write it off. Seems like she might have problems and you were just the unfortunate target. You provide helpful information with integrity. She’s the owner of whatever her problem is, not you. 🙂 We’ve all been at our wits end and lashed out on someone unassuming and this is what seems to be happening here in my opinion. I wouldn’t worry about it and perhaps out of compassion just let it go and let her be.

  • I’m with you, Lynn. I found her comment to be, at a minimum, a little curt. At its worst, it was indeed a putdown, just like the examples you cite would be.

    As one who works every day with words, sometimes your posts are about things I already know, sometimes I learn something entirely new, and sometimes you just give me a different perspective to consider. But I always enjoy your professionalism and friendliness with your readers. Perhaps Amanda could have taken her lesson in that.

  • Dear Desiree, Anne, Lori, and Lester,

    Thanks so much for joining this conversation. I also got two comments by email.

    As you suggested, I am going to write it off, learn from the feedback, and remember how cold the printed word can seem.

    When I first received Amanda’s message, I thought it would be a good comment to blog about. But it appears that it had also gotten under my skin. Thanks for helping me release it.

    Enjoy the day!


  • Good idea to put this in your blog. I agree with Lester, and will add that, if it was indeed ill intentions at work, you’ve countered them quite effectively. Nice work.

  • Very true, especially since she is in a related profession. It holds good too when you leave an organisation – ensure that you finish all the work entrusted to you and hand over to a responsible person. This ensures that you always can go back for a recommendation from the previous employer. The present generation does not believe in such niceties.

    This is a good blog.

  • I like the example and how everyone has shared their feelings.

    In the training industry, every single positive and negative encounter makes an instant case study for us to share.

  • She definitely was trying to get her point across that your newsletter didn’t give her anything she didn’t know already.

    When I receive an unsubsribe message, my gut reaction is to be offended. I then step back and use it as a time to re-evaluate to make sure I am still focussed where I should be in my writing. My unsubscribers never give me a reason other than “Other or will not disclose.” So I am none the wiser, but it still smarts a bit.

    Keep up the good work. I read your posts regularly and have you as a quick link on my blog.

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