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Don’t Hurt People When You Unsubscribe

The other day a consultant told me that he felt bad about someone unsubscribing from his monthly e-newsletter. Sure, people unsubscribe all the time. Why did this simple unsubscribe gesture upset him?

Because the person who unsubscribed was one of his favorite mentors.

How could this mentor, of all people, unsubscribe from his newsletter? Did the newsletter not share valuable, timely information and ideas? The consultant felt hurt, disappointed, and puzzled.

In a similar situation, a teenager told me one of her close friends was angry with her because she had stopped following him on Twitter. He wondered how she could shut him down like that and still be his friend. But the young woman confided to me, "Why should I follow him when I talk to him every day? Anyway, he constantly tweets about sports."

You might say the consultant and the young man were too sensitive, and you might be right. But I'll take the other side: Perhaps the mentor and the young woman were insensitive. They did not think about how turning off the communication might hurt someone who valued their relationship.

It's all about recognizing when something is bad news to the other person–and then communicating thoughtfully.

Whenever you worry that someone will feel bad about an action you will take or a decision you have made, pay attention to that small voice. It's an important signal. Then decide how you will communicate about the potential bad news if you care about the other person and your relationship.

Below are two examples of what you might write in the unsubscribe situation to avoid hurting a friend or an associate. Of course, having a conversation is an even better way to handle the news.

First, an email:

Subject: Unsubscribing from feeds

Hi Mark,

Today I spent time unsubscribing from newsletters and feeds I can't make time to read. Rather than having them hanging in my inbox and filling my phone, where I feel guilty about not getting to them, I decided to unsubscribe.

I wanted to let you know I unsubscribed from your feed. You write about fascinating things, but I am going to keep up with you other ways.

Let's talk soon.



Second, a text:

Hey Kyle. What's up? I wanted to tell you I unsubscribed from your feed. Nothing personal–I just need more time to get things done. When I see you, we can talk about everything. Gen

That kind of message minimizes any hurt the individual might feel. For teenagers, it keeps friendships intact. For people in business, it does the same: It supports our work relationships.

What is your view? If you unsubscribe from a friend's or an associate's feed, do you explain or say nothing? Or do you keep receiving the feed rather than hurt someone you care about?

You can find out more about supporting relationships in my new book, Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message a Time, which will be available soon. Get the first chapter free.

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

6 comments on “Don’t Hurt People When You Unsubscribe”

  • I don’t feel badly if I unsubscribe from someone’s newsletter or email list. It’s usually because I don’t have time or feel it’s not useful to me (as a new subscriber). If I know the person, I will always write a note saying that I unsubscribed because I was cutting down on my subscriptions and simply don’t have time – nothing to do with the content. I’m sure most people are in the same position with their email inboxes overflowing and they should understand.

  • Once I unsubscribed, without explanation, from a Yahoo group in which I had posted from time to time. I got a one-word answer from the moderator: “George?” That was enough. I re-subscribed.

  • I’ve wondered about this when I choose to ignore Linked In requests. I am judicious about adding people in Linked In, either because I work with them and don’t feel the need to connect with them in Linked In or because I am suspicious about the motives of someone I don’t know well. For example, I once accepted a request from a recruiter who now pesters me with candidates I am not in a position to hire. Is ignoring Linked In requests hurtful?

  • Hi, Jeannette, George, and Cindy. Thanks for stopping by with a comment.

    Jeannette, you mentioned the key point: writing a personal message if you know someone. If the relationship matters, it’s important to honor it. I constantly unsubscribe without a second thought from email series I do not remember ever subscribing to.

    George, delightful example! I love the power of that one-word question, your name.

    Cindy, it could be hurtful to ignore requests from people you know, for example, your coworkers. But for people you don’t know, remember that LinkedIn recommends connecting only with people you already know, have met, or have a connection with. I think it is acceptable to ignore requests from strangers you do not choose to connect with, especially since the free version of LinkedIn does not allow email with people who are not connections. I do feel a twinge of guilt about not responding, but if I accepted everyone who requested a connection, I would have a large pool of strangers I would not have the chance to get to know.


  • Dear Lynn,
    A note to say that you are going to unsubscribe from the site doesn’t take much of your time – it also shows respect for the other party and they will feel good, knowing that you care enough to tell them. And you won’t feel guilty at all. Courtesy is mutual. I once sent a note to a site to explain why I was unsunscribing as I had fallen behind with the daily mails, and with so much work piling up, I didn’t have the heart to keep on receiving and ignoring the mails, though they probably wouldn’t know I had not been reading them). It was I who subscribed in the first place and since I didn’t have time to continue reading the mails, I felt I owed them an explanation. It’s just courtesy.
    Penny Lau

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