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Who Should Save Face–You or Your Reader?

I recently emailed a friend to invite her to lunch. I suggested that we meet at the Portage Bay Cafe on Roosevelt. When she wrote back to say yes, she said she had visited the Portage Bay Cafe website, and she wanted to know whether I would like to meet on Terry Avenue, Market Street, or Roosevelt. She recommended Roosevelt as the most convenient location. 

I knew there were three locations. I had already suggested the restaurant on Roosevelt in my invitation! Should I tell my friend that, implicitly criticizing her for not reading carefully?

I didn't want to make my friend feel silly, so I responded, "The Portage Bay Cafe on Roosevelt is perfect."

Today I received an email reply from a business friend who said she had not called me me because she had misplaced my phone number. I scrolled down beneath her reply and saw my original message, with my signature block, including my phone number.

Should I write in reply, "My original message included my phone number," insinuating that she should have looked for it?

That approach seemed foolish and unfriendly to me. I replied simply with my phone number.

In these situations, I let my friends save face rather than pointing out that I had already given them the information they needed. I try to do the same for clients, customers, and others, recognizing that even when I format information so it stands out, fast-moving readers buried in email often will not see the essentials. I have been guilty of the same oversight myself. 

How do you feel in such situations, and how do you handle them? Do you let people know when they have missed something in your email? Or do you simply answer their questions? Please share your experiences.

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 “Who Should Save Face–You or Your Reader?”

  • This sort of thing happens quite often at work, and it’s not because we aren’t formatting the email carefully. It’s usually because there is a long thread of multiple replies and multiple recipients, and the reader just skimmed instead of scrolling down. e.g., “Which page of the website were you on when you saw this error?” That person could have scrolled down to find it himself, but he’s decided “he doesn’t have time for such nonsense.” I and my coworkers usually respond with the answer he’s looking for, plus “as shown in the email thread below,” hoping that will remind everyone that they aren’t the only busy bee that doesn’t have time to scroll, but to please, next time, scroll. I’m guilty of rushing also, and am likewise reminded.

  • Hi, Karla. Thanks for your excellent example. Reading it, I wonder whether there is a way to be sure the important information in a thread remains prominent. Maybe it would help to edit the threads so scrolling takes less time.

    If you happen to read this comment, please share your thoughts.


  • I have had same experiences at work and on social network. My responses are not usually the same in both occasions. If it is work related, and it involves a superior, I simply respond back with the requested information. However, if it is with a colleague, I usually make reference to the part of the document where in the information is already provided and the same approach applies with my social network. Often times, when people omit important information, we need to recognize that we are not the only one they are probably are doing this to and one way to be of help, as friends and colleagues, is to bring this to their attention. Hopefully, they find this helpful when dealing with others as well.


  • Tola, thank you for sharing your experience. I like the idea that you are bringing the information to the attention of your colleagues and social network friends, although I have not taken that approach myself. I am wondering whether your approach has helped people change their behavior.

    Again, thanks for commenting.


  • I have definitely encountered this issue in both my professional and personal life, and I also struggle with exactly how to deal with it.

    When this occurs in a work-related situation, I do have a hard time just giving the information again and not saying anything to inform the person that they missed the fact that I already provided it.

    Here’s my concern: let’s say a supervisor consistently misses information provided by an employee, and is always asking for it again. Eventually, wouldn’t this supervisor begin to believe that this employee is careless and unable to follow directions?? Should the employee really let the supervisor continue with this incorrect mindset- most likely barring themselves from ever receiving a promotion? This seems terribly unfair to me.

  • Hi, LisaMarie. I believe the situation you describe would be best handled by an in-person discussion between the supervisor and the employee. The employee could share the concern that the supervisor’s questions are making the employee less efficient, since he or she must write the answer more than once.

    Thanks for mentioning this helpful scenario.


  • I simply answer the question. I usually know what they mean, or that they have skimmed through my message and missed it. It’s not a big deal to let them save face.

    It would be nice if others would do the same in turn. I find others not so kind. It serves no purpose to point out a mistake…I believe in praising people to success.

    I would love to forward this to some!

  • Lynn,

    Thanks for your response. A face-to-face conversation would be a great way to deal with that sort of situation- and pointing out that the employee is unable to be efficient places the focus on the good of the business rather than on the supervisor’s mistakes.


    Forgive me for playing devil’s advocate here, but I wonder how you would respond to an issue like the one I describe in my comment above. Do you believe that there are times when pointing out a mistake can serve a purpose?
    I do agree that people are often unkind in these sorts of situations, though- that is never necessary.

  • Hi, Susan. I see that you and I agree.

    I have not been in a situation where people have been unkind to me about my overlooking things. But when I reread a thread and realize I asked an unnecessary question, I do kick myself.

    I have found that sometimes what I missed is in the person’s subject line rather than in the body of the email. This has taught me to be sure in my own messages that I repeat anything important that appears in my subject.

    Thanks for being part of the discussion.


  • Hi, LisaMarie. Thanks for following up.

    I think “consistently” is an important part of the situation you described. If someone overlooks information once or twice, the person may be having a bad day. But if it happens repeatedly, it becomes a time waster for everyone involved. Such a situation would merit a discussion.


  • Hi, Lynn. I had a question on whether a signature block is recommended every time we reply to an e-mail (formal or informal). I have seen people write their first name and then give the signature block. Is that acceptable or should the signature block be excluded from a reply? Thanks, Warda

  • Hi, Warda. The signature block should be part of the first message to the other person, whether the writer initiates the exchange or is replying.

    So if I write to you, my message will include my signature block.

    If you write to me, my reply will include my signature block. Without it, you may not have my full name, title, phone number, and other details you need.

    In an ongoing exchange, we can both delete the signature block because of the space it takes.

    Thanks for asking.


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