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In email the quickest response is not always the most appropriate.

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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.info.

Let's say you're on a mailing list with 2,000 other people world wide.

And let's say that someone on that mailing list says something incredibly stupid. Or offensive. Or ignorant. Or just somehow wrong.

And you feel the need to correct them. Right away.

Do you?

If you answered "yes", you're actually like many people; it's a common reaction to want to reply right away and put them in their place.

Please don't.

Seriously, count to 10 first or do whatever else might cause you to step back, catch your breath and thing carefully about what you're about to say.

I'm sure you've seen it; we all have. I saw it again this week when a question to a list of a couple thousand members resulted several fast and inflammatory responses. The result was a piling on of messages in agreement in both tone and content, as well as flurry of inflammatory rebuttals. And of course what followed included hurt feelings, a stifling of the overall conversation for which the list exists, and several departures from the list.

Not at all what you might consider useful or constructive conversation.

I took the opportunity to write up some thoughts on my site TamingEmail.com, and wanted to mention it here as well.

It's all to easy for words in email to be misinterpreted and for our passions to outpace our reason. In the long run it's really pointless to have said something quickly if the result is no one hears what you have to say over the emotion. That's why "count to 10" or even "sleep on it" are common bits of advice you'll hear from email veterans who've witnessed these flare ups and flame wars time and time again.

In a lot of ways email isn't human. You're interacting with a computer, not a person. It's extremely easy to write things on a computer that you'd never dream of saying to someone in person. In fact, a great technique to make sure that your message is appropriate is simple to imagine yourself standing in front of your intended recipient reading the message. Embarrassed by what you envision? Then perhaps the message is worth re-wording. Or waiting until the emotions have settled a little.

Note that I'm in no way saying that the initial reaction to a message is either right or wrong. What I am saying is that taking the time to craft a well thought out response rather than dash of a quick rebuttal is much more likely to be heard, and much more likely to preserve the original conversation's intent.

You can read more out on TamingEmail.com, in my article Count to 10, to 100, to 1000 if you have to.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.info and enter 11601 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse over 1,200 technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.info.

Article C3059 - June 17, 2007 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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8 Comments
Anne
June 18, 2007 6:06 PM

I totally agree. I'm more of the "sleep" on it type of person, which is difficult since people seem to expect instant responses.

Mary
June 19, 2007 7:00 AM

I waited almost 48 hours before responding. :-)

In theory, everything you said is correct. But in practical applications, it's the person who asks for a response who sets the tone. If the asker didn't want immediate feedback she could have used snail mail to send the question or editorial remarks to a magazine, for example. But if he chooses to use email as an "instantaneous connection to the world" then he probably expects equally fast replies.

Another consideration is whether or not she will even see a well thought out reply. If the majority of those 2,000 people on that mailing list respond within the first few hours (let's say 15%) and another 10% respond within the first 12 hours, what are the chances the asker will bother to look beyond those 500 replies to get to the well thought out answers? Human nature says unless someone is into pain and suffering she's not going to continue to abuse herself.

I can't help but remember what lawyers say about asking questions of a witness: "If you don't think you're gonna like the answer, don't ask the question." People who choose to post questions or views in a public forum should remember that advice. Myself included should this response evoke hateful or hurtful replies. But the fact I'm posting my comment means I accept the consequences, no matter what.

Barb
June 22, 2007 6:38 PM

Hey Leo,
How did you know I needed this article???
I have this "urgency addiction" in my personal life as well. Have ruined a lot of relationships concerning this trait. I'm working on it! I find emails easier than IM's just bc I DO have time to think. THANK YOU, THANK YOU.

Cassandra
June 22, 2007 8:25 PM

I agree. I remember an em that was sent in haste, came off very hateful at a coworker/friend of mine, God and everyone in between were copied. I opened my copy before she did and got to her before she opened it so she wouldn't 'blast off'. We talked it out and in our case the best response was no response. Which made the sender reconsider and send out another em 3 days later with a different tone. It was very obvious that the sender was embarrassed and it really made my friend look good!

dunstergirl
June 22, 2007 9:27 PM

Just remember when you send email or reply to a forum or listserv, it's gone forever when you hit SEND - you cannot get it back and change it. I'm of the "sleep on it" persuasion myself (or at least wait a few hours, if there's the slightest chance of offense), after too many years at this stuff.

And when reading something that seems offensive or hurtful, before replying, also remember that not everyone communicates well in writing. I have had colleagues (even friends) over the years whose email always seemed a bit abrupt or hurtful, and eventually learned not to take it personally, some people just don't communicate well that way.

Cheers,
Lelani

Ian Whyteside
June 24, 2007 8:10 AM

So come on Leo tell us how to create e-mails which default immediately to draft and have to be read a second time before they can be sent. I have asked for this everywhere I have worked because I get fed up sorting out the problems staff have caused me by respnding too quickly.

IT seem to have a problem with this, or is it actually technically impossible?

Leo A. Notenboom
June 25, 2007 1:59 PM

-----BEGIN PGP SIGNED MESSAGE-----
Hash: SHA1

I must be missing something about your question. In most email programs it's
simple: DON'T HIT SEND. Close the message window and most email programs will
ask if you want to save it as a draft.

Thanks,

Leo

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Version: GnuPG v1.4.6 (MingW32)

iD8DBQFGgCzDCMEe9B/8oqERAr8WAJwI2+Td1KgDFLXf+8nMS+emcdKxegCfd4tj
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=JrpG
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joe chunchich
January 13, 2008 6:58 PM

hello leo
when i maximize my pokerstars.com window it does not fill up the screenthe screen.
there is a one inch space above the bottom toolbar which makes the printing distorted.
can you help me ?

thanks

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