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Being Kind Even in Disguise

This week I deleted a comment left here. The meat of the comment made sense, but it closed with this command: "Get with the times and get down off your high horse."

As a proponent of excellent, courteous business communication, I deleted the comment because it ended with a rude slap. When I emailed the writer, who described himself or herself as "Grammar Police," I explained that I welcomed a new comment without the closing statement. My message came back as undeliverable. The email address Grammar Police had given did not exist.

It's easy to attack from an anonymous disguise. But it is much more effective to make constructive, kind comments, whether we are presenting ourselves boldly as ourselves or coyly with a pseudonym.

My motto is the well known "Praise publicly; blame privately." I am weary of cloaked invective delivered online–attacks on celebrities, politicians, and others who end up in the news.  Attacking them rather than looking in the mirror is a coward's game in which everybody loses.

I also object to open criticism of innocent companies. Bloggers and commenters ridicule companies because one customer service person was having an off day or one web page didn't include the information they needed. These assaults hit victims who can't protect themselves. There is no way to throw up a shield against Internet strikes. Is that a fair fight?

I would like to see worldwide communication be supportive. I want to read blogs that praise publicly and, when they want to point out dumb behavior, do so without blasting an individual or company by name.

Am I a Pollyanna, someone who sees the world through rose-colored glasses? If so, at least I can create a rosy space here at Business Writing.

What's your view? Rose-colored? Gray? Or maybe rose-coloured? Grey? Please share.

By the way, Grammar Police was not suggesting that I get off my high horse. He/She was responding to someone who had left a comment. Not kind, not constructive.

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.

11 comments on “Being Kind Even in Disguise”

  • I agree with you completely, Lynn. The golden rule should always apply: Treat others in the way you yourself would like to be treated.

    I feel many negative comments come from those who need to let off steam or have a chip on their shoulder. Venting grievances in the heat of the moment without thinking about the possible consequences of hard words is all too easy on the Internet. We should all imagine ourselves on the receiving end and do some ethical/empathetic proofreading before hitting the “Enter” key.

  • That is absolutely true. I, though, am just as guilty as the next guy of venting angrily online. I feel it’s better to do it anonymously online than to take my anger out on loved ones in person. I always, however, watch that comment, and as soon as someone calls me out on it, go back and apologize. It’s not the best way to handle it, but I feel at least I’m making an attempt not many others make.

  • Lynn, it’s so funny that you ask if you are a Pollyanna. It’s a word I use a lot to describe myself. I don’t see that as a bad thing. We tend to see the positive in people.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Maybe it’s the way I was raised. I don’t know what happened to common courtesy. Perhaps the anonymity of the web (real or perceived) contributes but as I read on one blog – You don’t have to agree – just be nice!

  • You know, I have always been torn by the anonymity afforded by the web; on the one hand, I applaud it and guard it jealously as it relates most deeply to those who created our nation (think federalist papers, etc.) and free speech, and on the other hand, I abhor it because it emboldens those who would be abusive and callous without fear of reprisal.

    Still, of all the things I abhor most, it is attacking from behind an avatar that I find most abysmal. What petty rudeness abounds when one is not held accountable for their actions is immeasurable.

    It has been said that the light of day cleanses all. There is much wisdom in that saying I think,

  • Hi, everyone. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    Dala, I love your idea of “ethical/empathetic proofreading.” It’s a new step to add to the proofreading checklist.

    Cathy, thank you for admiting to being my soul sister Pollyanna. I like the comment you brought from that other blog: “You don’t have to agree–just be nice.” I do agree.

    Erin, your comment is so interesting! Perhaps rather than posting the negative comment in the first place, you can type the comment and then cancel out without posting it. Would that help you vent without offending? By the way, I appreciate your honesty.

    Mickey, thank you for sharing your wisdom. The mask of an avatar does seem to lead to rudeness that one would never display next to one’s name and photo.

    Thanks for the good discussion.


  • Hi,
    if one cannot agree and has the option between friendly disguise and attack, how about not replying at all? I pretty much prefer silence over dishonesty. Of course it is not always possible to be silent, but most of the small things in life are worth neither masquerading nor fighting. Having to hide fiendish thoughts behind a friendly facade is the twisted thing that tends to break people inside and make them mad in time.
    But it is also very much a question of cultural background. Here in Germany most people are less talkative, open and friendly in first place. This avoids situations in which natural rudeness conflicts with politeness.
    For an old source of European customs see the “The High One’s Lay” in the elder Edda ( Obviously over thousand years ago people meditated on exactly the same topic.



  • Hi, Jan. Thank you for thinking about this issue and sharing your thoughts.

    I do not believe “friendly disguise and attack” are the only responses available when someone disagrees. I can simply state my disagreement and the reasons for it, without disguise, attack, or rude behavior.

    I do not suggest masquerading–just behaving courteously.


  • Hi, Lynn. Thank you for your reply, which helps me to differentiate further.

    I wrote mainly about the two situations when either too many personal feelings are involved and objectiveness is hard or impossible to achieve or when the motto “Praise publicly; blame privately” is to be applied. In these cases I’d recommend silence over disguise or attack. And if the decision is to attack I agree with you that there is a certain level of language and behavior that should be kept.

    For situations you can just handle by stating your complaints in a rather objective manner you are of course perfectly right. But that does not apply to everything one can encounter. There are moments passion (sometimes even polemics) is the only possible reply. These moments mostly occur when dealing with irrational people or subjects bound to strong feelings.

    To give an example, I can think of a skit in which a person replies to a street robbery something like “Pardon, Sir, I strongly object to you taking my purse. As Adam Smith stated, it is the duty of the state to protect private property and I hereby declare that I will call the police if you do not stop your assault..”. The humor in it results from the feeling that a polite reply is inappropriate to such an attack. This situation is extraordinary threatening, but I believe less fierce examples can be found in which politeness and objectivity are not key.


  • Lynn, I just found your blog, and want to let you know I love it and will be a regular reader. I used to have a tendency to do just what you describe here – post a comment or criticism online in the heat of the moment and then later wince at having gone too far and said something hurtful. It’s all too easy to click “send” or “reply” before cooling down, and unfortunately the internet can be as unforgiving as face-to-face communication – once it’s out there, it’s often too late to recall the words. I’ve since learned to give vent to my anger or frustration (or sometimes just excitement) in a notepad file and save it to post later if I still feel inclined. More often than not, when I reread the comment I’m satisfied to have written it, but relieved not to have sent it.

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