As a writer and editor I’ve been bred to have a tough skin. Some of my best constructive criticism came from thoughtful professors and kind editors when I was attending NYU for grad school. If it wasn’t for my editor at Inc., I never would have learned to write a lead for my articles. His graciousness and tact throughout my 9 months with the company never went unappreciated.
I’ve worked with much harsher critics, too. I remember I wrote a dreadful title for a story and my boss literally whacked me on the head for it. No, I didn’t sue her. But I remembered it and let me assure you I’ll never make that bonehead move again.
Now I’m in the editor’s chair and I have to steer the ship. I try to be thoughtful when it comes to editing other people’s work—I know what it’s like to be sharply criticized. Plus, I come from the school where you don’t have to be mean and arrogant to get your point across.
Our freelancers email me all day. And I communicate with them almost entirely by email. They’re busy, I’m busy, so email seems to be the best way to share ideas. Plus, I work better when I have something in writing.
My Angry Email Story
I’m not a screamer. I don’t feel the need to yell to get my point across. I don’t even get angry often. But when a freelancer cut me off at the knees a couple of weeks ago I was furious.
Here’s the scenario. One of our freelancers, let’s call him Dave, failed to adequately complete his writing assignment. I had been emailing and calling him for over a week, asking him to please send me the missing information. When deadline day rolled around, and nothing had materialized, I called him once more to prod him. He basically told me he couldn’t get a hold of the guy he needed to talk to, so, sorry.
Sorry? He’d known about this assignment for over a month and didn’t finish it and we were about to go to press. I did what any good editor would do and I looked to see if the keeper of the missing info was represented by any public relations agent. Voila! He was. I gave this woman a call and pleaded my case. This was before lunchtime.
The rest of my day was shot because I had to track down this man and get him to give me the missing piece of the article—a sidebar that we always print in this particular section of the magazine. To not get it was not an option. I wasn’t going to risk the reputation of the magazine because Dave didn’t do his job to the fullest.
The lovely PR person, who had a great southern accent by the way, and I traded emails and phone calls all day. At about 6:25 pm the sidebar info finally came in. The only two people in the office were myself and our art director. We were supposed to be at an awards ceremony that night but couldn’t make it due to the fact we had to wait at the office for this information.
Our art director placed it on the page and I made the PDF and sent it off to our printer, who was kind enough to let us push our deadline back a little bit in order to finish the story. I was exhausted, embarrassed, and fuming. I felt like Dave failed to do his job and left me holding the bag. I sent him an email. Allow me to paraphrase:
I got the missing info but it nearly killed me. This is YOUR job, not mine. You should get this info during your interviews so we don’t EVER have to try to get it at the last minute again. I’m really upset and frustrated that I had to do it as I don’t have time for this last-minute hassle and don’t want it to happen again.
Short and sweet. And honestly, I didn’t think it was a bad email. I wanted to let him know I was upset and that I didn’t want something like this to happen again. Case closed. Or so I thought.
The next day Dave calls up my boss to rant and rave at him for 23 minutes (he timed it) about my unprofessionalism. I was shocked. Me? Unprofessional? I figured that if I had called him on the phone I would have made him feel worse! My supervisor suggested that I never again send a heated email, that if I’m angry I should call the person up and tell it to them in person. I get her drift—if I call someone they don’t have anything in writing to look back on and use against me. But I was so angry that I felt an email was the best way to go.
Clearly other people don’t have the thick skin that I do, but does that mean I have to handle them with kid gloves? I don’t regret what I emailed to Dave, but I will think twice about sending an angry email again.
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That email ain’t that bad or angry at all..? And why is he talking about YOU being unprofessional? Let’s talk about HIM being unprofessional.
I understand what you’re trying to say but at the same time I fail to see how you were at fault for this. It wasn’t a bad email and it was well deserved. So what if he has a written copy to review for the rest of his life if he so wishes – let it be a lesson!
That’s an interesting case. Personally, I don’t think that’s an angry email. No f word, no sh**. I really don’t understand what this David thinking about that.
This is a great post. Been there. Done that. 🙂 Not on a professional level, but on a personal one. I think that E-mail has definitely allowed most folks to be freer in their expression–which is why proper discernment is crucial.
One of the things that has always irked me about email communication in general is the relative disregard that people have for just their thoughts fly. It’s like all inhibition goes out the window when emailing someone. Things people would never dream of saying in person, come out loud and clear on email.
I can see that your email was thought out. However, I think that it was probably better said over the phone or in person (if possible). A second thing to think about is how easily an email is taken out of context by someone reading it with no prior knowledge of the situation. This makes you look like a total A**, and the other guy look like some sort of victim.
Anyway, definitely a lesson that many of us have learned. Good think for everyone to keep in mind for professionalism, and sometimes liability reasons.
Long long ago when ‘social media’ was ‘Usenet’ or ‘Netnews’, we’d say: “Sit on your hands!”. ie, don’t post an emotional reaction to the newsgroup in question.
I think in the above case, Dave was 100% incorrect in his response to you. Sure, he might have gotten a short-term satisfaction from complaining about you to your boss, but he managed to burn some pretty useful bridges for the long term.
Sad how some people choose that way.
I totally resonate with this. Many times we feel that we’d better just write something, that way we won’t have them hear how really angry we are. However, all that frustration becomes an undertone in the written message, and since it’s a message, there’s no dialogue to clear certain things up. I had a similar experience with a very unjust professor, and things escalated rather quickly via emails.
Neither one of us was extremely rude or unprofessional in the email, but when a situation is awkward and/or frustrating, we can add in meaning and undertones that might not even be there in the first place. I learned to cool down a bit (wait at least a day) and either talk to the person face to face, or give them a call.
That didn’t seem like an angry email to me. It seemed like a (rightfully) frustrated one, though. And I also agree that if you called him, it would have been harsher over the phone. Email can take the sting out of a lot of messages if worded neutrally. But, honestly, I probably wouldn’t have even emailed “Dave.” He would have just gone to the bottom (or been struck from) my list of freelancers.
Thanks for the feedback everyone! I’m sure there are many others out there that have been in the same boat — so it’s great to hear your thoughts and opinions.
This came at the perfect time….i am in the process of writing a “angry e-mail”…although… i still think i’m going to send it. I’ll just try to make it less mean. 🙂
Thanks for this!
I just sent one – but at my facebook’s wall
Well in the same situation I’d react much, much worse, so I don’t think you over reacted at all 😉
I remember one suggestion from Guy Kawasaki:
“When someone writes you a pissy email, the irresistible temptation is to retaliate. (And this is for an inconsequential email message–no wonder countries go to war.) You will almost always make the situation worse. A good practice is to wait twenty-four hours before you respond. An even better practice is that you never say in email what you wouldn’t say in person–this applies to both the sender and recipient, by the way.”
I would restrain myself from ever sending angry emails – there’s a paper trail right there that can be used against you down the road. Instead “express” yourself directly, over the phone or in person if you can. Also, take some time to cool off, let your anger subside a bit. Who knows, maybe you’ll look at things from a different perspective when your hart is pumping a bit slower. Just a thought.