Tone Deaf

What to do when an email exchange goes horribly awry.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of what we perceive as an impolite email.

Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot with the sender. Maybe the person on the other end is having a bad day. It’s also possible that we did something to offend the other person and they are lashing out (rightfully or not).

Whether or not the reason is justifiable, a snappish message can still come as a surprise and leave us stewing and wondering how to respond, if at all.

It’s different for every situation, but most of the time I recommend a good old fashioned clearing of the air. This month, I’m sharing what I did after encountering a seemingly hostile exchange that if not handled properly, would have ruined the project at hand.

After meeting a source during an event I was covering, I followed up via email to get the ball rolling on a formal interview. Our communication seemed to break down with every click of the send button.

Having only met the source in person once, I didn’t know much about his personality, so it was difficult to discern his tone (an ongoing issue when it comes to electronic communication), but my gut told me something was wrong and if I didn’t find out what, my article was going to suffer for it.

Finally, I responded, “It seems as if we got off on the wrong foot. I’m not sure what I did to offend you, but if you’d feel comfortable telling me, perhaps we can hit the reset button and start fresh.” Within five minutes, he called me, confessed that he recently had a very bad experience with a reporter at another publication (for the record, it was not a New Orleans outlet) and expressed his fears about the slant of the piece, as well as worries that I would get something wrong or misquote him.

My response was to tell him I was sorry he had such a bad experience and that I understood his standoffishness. I then took the time to again review the scope of the piece and to explain my reporting, writing and fact-checking process. This was all he needed to hear and we were off and running on what ended up being a fantastic interview.

The key points in my response to him were to acknowledge that there was a problem (or that I perceived one); to illustrate that I heard, understood and empathized with his situation; and to curb his fears and anxieties.

Perception is the million-dollar word when it comes to email (and text messaging). Because we aren’t always able to determine the sender’s tone of voice, see their facial expression or view body language indicators that we would during a face-to-face conversation, we sometimes think someone is being rude, passive aggressive or intentionally short with us when that may not be the case.

That’s why it’s important to carefully evaluate the situation before inquiring about whether or not the sender has a problem (in general, or specifically with you). If you aren’t sure, review the exchange with a trustworthy friend or colleague. Confide in a person who can be impartial and able to keep the information confidential. If they agree that there is clearly a problem, call or email the sender and again, try to clear the air. In some cases it might be better to call so the person on the other end of the conversation can at least hear your tone of voice.
If you are feeling particularly sensitive and it’s not urgent, consider letting it go overnight until you can respond in a calm and non-defensive manner. Also, as always, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and look at it from their perspective.

We all have the desire to be liked, but at the end of the day, you can’t please 100 percent of the people 100 percent of the time. If you’ve done everything within your power and still can’t make headway, it might be time to move on and accept it.

My guess is, however, that if you are honest and approach the other person on the end of the email chain with humility and humanity, your working relationship will be all the better for it and you might also end up having a good laugh over the miscommunication.

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride and New Orleans Homes & Lifestyles and managing editor of Louisiana Life and Acadiana Profile. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to



Categories: Biz Etiquette