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Loose Lips Sink Relationships

Today at the airport as I waited for a plane, I overheard a man across from me talking loudly on his phone. He went on and on about a client company, using the company’s name repeatedly. He described their problem and how it might be solved. He used the phrase “a million dollars” several times.

His client is a huge company in the Seattle area. We were at the Seattle airport waiting for a Seattle-San Francisco flight. Chances were good that someone within earshot worked for the client company. I myself have led business writing classes there.

Loose lips sink relationships. It’s a play on the World War II U.S. warning “Loose lips sink ships,” which cautioned people against talking about details that the enemy might overhear and use. My version is to caution people against thoughtless conversations–especially in public places–that can harm businesses and business relationships if overheard.

Since this is Business Writing blog, let’s tie “loose lips sink relationships” to writing. Here is a suggestion: Never put in writing something that would embarrass you or others if it were forwarded or passed on. If you would not want to see it on your boss’s tablet, on the company intranet, or in someone else’s tweet, don’t put it in writing. Doing so could damage your relationships, your business prospects, and other people.

We can communicate about confidential topics, but we must do it discreetly. For example, the loud talker at the airport might have lowered his voice and not used the client company’s name. In writing, we can leave out names and not write things we should not be communicating in the first place. (I am thinking of the New Jersey scandal in which one email, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” has become a familiar slogan for news consumers and a feast for comedians, along with costing several people their jobs and their relationships.)

Have you experienced “loose lips” situations–spoken or written–that threatened relationships? I welcome your stories.


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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.

10 comments on “Loose Lips Sink Relationships”

  • Lynn,

    Years ago a client asked me by email “confidentially” about my opinion of a colleague – with whom I had had a couple of unprovoked run-ins. Without going into a lot of details, I said that I found the guy abrasive and unpleasant to work with. Imagine my surprise and embarrassment when they went on to do several joint ventures together!

    Since then I am much more cautious about expressing negative opinions about other people even when asked “confidentially.”

    Marcia Yudkin

  • I have for many years been very careful about what I email, especially to clients or other vendors. Even assuming that I’m emailing someone who is sympathetic to my point of view, you never know if they’ll accidentally forward it to someone else who is not so sympathetic! If I must email about something touchy, I’m careful to remove all email addresses from forwarded messages, or to start a new email…or better yet, I pick up the phone and call instead!

    And when I used to gossip about my clients to my husband in local restaurants, I’d always use code names. Even my big city could feel like a small town and you never know if the person at the next table is your client’s sister in law!

  • Lynn,

    What good advice! It is a good reminder to think before you speak and write, especially in a world in which you are forever linked to your words.

  • When I was very young my mother told me to never put anything in writing that could came back to haunt me. I had just started to write letters to my cousins and this advice made me be very careful about what I shared.

  • I use caution with voicemail now too. We have shoretel at work that allows the voicemail to go to your email address which can be forwarded on.

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