I was teaching a business writing course, when an attendee I'll call Lucy showed me an email she had sent to a vendor. In the message, Lucy explained that she had not replied sooner because her company's computer system had been down. Her message was clear and concise, and I complimented Lucy on her efficiency.
Her reply astounded me. She told me something like this: "I always blame the IT department when I'm late getting back to someone."
What Lucy had written was a lie. The computer system was fine. She simply had not gotten around to replying sooner.
Lying in email is a huge risk:
- It threatens people's trust. What if Lucy's readers learn she has lied to them? What if a coworker comes across one of her fabricated excuses? Trust will evaporate.
- It threatens work relationships. What if IT learns about Lucy's frequent misplaced blame?
- It threatens jobs. Email is forever, which means a lie lingers and may suddenly appear on the front page or on everyone's desktop.
- It diminishes self-respect. Lucy cannot pride herself on her truthfulness.
- It can make us lazy. Rather than find a solution to her email or work overload, Lucy takes the easy way out and blames another department.
When should you tell a lie in email? I say never.
What do you think? Are there situations when a lie is preferable to the truth?
Tact and kindness are not lying. We all know the right response when a spouse, partner, or coworker asks, "Do I look fat in these pants?" I'm wondering about a lie like Lucy's. Couldn't she just write, "I apologize for the delay in replying to your email"?
As always, I welcome your views.