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Caution: Read the Thread Before You Send

Forwarded emails can threaten professional relationships and reputations. And they often communicate the dangerous content where we don’t readily see it–lower down the thread, in a previous screen. The three examples below will remind you to scroll and check content before clicking Send. 

1.  I was searching for someone to help promote a book for a client, and a marketing specialist responded to my group email. His message presented him well, but I laughed when I happened to scroll down and noticed that his mother had forwarded my message to him. She had instructed him in what to include to sell himself and how much to charge. He had followed his mother’s guidance.

At first I thought “Thanks, Mom. You made your son look silly.” But his mother wasn’t to blame. He had not edited his mother’s message when he emailed me.

2. I wrote to a friend asking her for brief information about a mutual acquaintance. Rather than replying to my question, she forwarded my email to our acquaintance.

Normally, that forwarding could be efficient rather than unfortunate. But I had referred to the acquaintance as “the other Lynn” (rather than using her full name), and it was clear from my message that I didn’t remember things about her that I probably should have.

The purpose of my original message was to be reminded of things so that I could approach our acquaintance in a more friendly way. Instead, I felt embarrassed that my friend had inadvertently revealed my ignorance. I wish she had considered the thread before clicking Send.

3. An attendee at one of my business writing classes told the story of a hurtful forwarding. As an accounting clerk, she often had to persist in asking for receipts to document expenses. In that context, she found herself referred to as the “accounting nazi” in an email thread. When she read that label, she was angry with the person who wrote it and the person who forwarded it.

Remember: Potential danger lurks beneath the first screen in threads and forwarded messages. Scroll down and remove any unprofessional, hurtful, or negative content before you click Send.

Have you experienced thoughtless forwards or threads? Please share your examples.

You might enjoy the chapter “Protect Your Relationships by Avoiding Bad Email Behaviors” in my book, Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. 


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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.

7 comments on “Caution: Read the Thread Before You Send”

  • Be careful of adding someone into the email thread as well! I recently was added into an email thread from a friend of a client of mine who was visiting the country and wanted to learn more about the region and what my organization does. At the bottom of the email there was an exchange between the two of them about where the best beaches to do things besides swimming were to be found. There was no harm done, but had someone else other than at my organization had been looped in, or had I forwarded the email on without reading the email there might have easily been.

  • I’ve been wondering if it’s acceptable to edit a previous message to clarify or avoid anything that could be offensive. I have removed sentences before that were not necessary. But I’m not sure if it’s okay to edit another person’s message.

  • In response to Stephanie’s comment, I edit forwarded content often. I make the effort to be transparent about my changes, however:

    “I’ve been wondering if it’s acceptable…[to] avoid anything that could be offensive.”

    It may also be appropriate to copy the person who’s words you edited to show respect and to provide reassurance. –Jim

  • Hi Stephanie and Jim,

    Yes, it is acceptable to edit a thread when your goal is to communicate clearly, correctly, and professionally. You can use a statement as simple as “I have edited the thread below for relevance.”

    Jim, I like your way of indicating a change.

    I only edit when there is a strong reason to do so. Otherwise, the editing itself could create a problem.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Another area of concern is ‘aggregation of data’, where information in the thread coupled with information in your own email can lead to a potential breach of security especially if the email is going outside of your organisation.

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