Sometimes people say things in email that would be better left unsaid. This list of 10 examples will alert you to statements that can weaken your messages and your business relationships.
1. “My manager told me to handle it this way, but I'm not sure he knows what he is talking about.”
Why it’s bad: Telling customers or other individuals that you disagree with your manager diminishes your manager—and the entire company. It suggests the company has bad management and bad decision makers. Besides that, the statement presents you as tactless and arrogant. Criticizing your company’s policies sends the same negative message.
Instead, inspire confidence: “According to my manager, this is the best way to handle your situation.”
2. “I would like to have the contract for you this week, but our legal department takes forever to approve things.”
Why it’s bad: Similar to Number 1, criticizing a department like legal, information technology, or human resources belittles the company. For instance, if legal takes “forever,” it is either understaffed, incompetent, or uncooperative rather than nimble, competent, and responsive. Why would someone want to deal with an organization that has mediocre teams?
Instead, express support: “I will be sure this contract gets to you as soon as possible.”
3. “I am new on the job, and I'm not sure what I am doing yet.”
Why it’s bad: Although admitting inexperience can inspire empathy, it can also diminish your readers’ regard for your company and you. It can make readers wonder why your company did not train you before having you do the job, or why you did not learn from your training.
Instead, show care and common sense: “Let me confirm the best approach before we move forward.”
4. “My assistant does the check requests, and she is out on vacation until the 15th. Then Accounts Payable usually takes a week to cut a check.”
Why it’s bad: Details about your internal processes, especially when processes plod along not focused on customers’ or others’ needs, do nothing to satisfy readers. In fact, they make readers doubt your company’s efficiency: Can’t anyone besides your assistant complete a check request? Why does it take a week to cut a check? Justifying a delay by explaining that you are very busy at a particular time of year does not reassure readers either. It makes them wonder why you could not plan and staff for a predictably busy time.
Instead, accept responsibility: “I will see that your check is processed as quickly as possible.”
5. “I would have had this information for you sooner, but I had a colonoscopy, and it seems to have revealed some problems I was not aware of.”
Why it’s bad: Personal information can embarrass readers and make them feel awkward about how and whether they should respond. Unless you have a close relationship with your readers, personal details such as health concerns, legal problems, and small or grown children’s struggles do not belong in your communications. The information might make readers wonder whether you are able to give their needs sufficient attention.
Instead, be discreet: “Here is the information you requested. I am sorry for the slight delay.
6. “You could’ve gotten free tickets if you had let me know yesterday, but we gave them all away.”
Why it’s bad: “Could’ve” and “Should’ve” statements make readers feel bad. And the cold words on the screen can suggest that you enjoy letting people know about their lost opportunity. There is no point in sharing information that readers cannot benefit from.
Instead, say nothing or communicate empathy: “I wish I had free tickets for you.”
7. “Your email ended ‘Bet wishes’—what’s that supposed to mean?”
Why it’s bad: Pointing out someone’s typo, inconsequential error, or minor imperfection wins no friends. Your remark may come across as mean spirited and condescending. Such behavior is like pointing out a pimple on someone’s face. There’s not much he or she can do about it. If you are a supervisor who is coaching an employee on eliminating errors, that’s a different story. But you would communicate about the error without sarcasm.
Instead, be tactful and ignore the error.
8. “Why did you ask for Friday off when you know I can’t give it to you?”
Why it’s bad: It’s impossible to ask such a question in email without endangering a relationship. Readers appreciate neither the assumption that they know certain things nor the questioning of their motives.
Instead, respond without suspicion: “I am sorry that taking Friday off is impossible. It’s the start of inventory.” (Provide the appropriate reason.)
9. “You probably don’t need this information, but . . . .” (The writer continues with the information.)
Why it’s bad: Readers get bogged down in information they do not need. That means they will not be able to focus on what they do need, and you won’t get the results you seek.
Instead, offer to provide more information: “If you need more information, just let me know.”
10. “I will have this information for you by the end of the day.”
Why it’s bad—sometimes: The statement is bad if you will struggle to meet that deadline and may even miss it. Making yourself struggle and potentially missing the deadline are both bad—if the other person never communicated a required time limit.
Instead, ask about the reader’s degree of urgency: “I will be happy to get this information. When do you need it?”
What would you add to this list?
Here are three other blog posts about potentially damaging email content:
This article appeared in slightly different form in the e-newsletter Better Writing at Work.