Don’t send that email until you’ve read this. Seriously, don’t.

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Sometimes, the most effective emails are the ones you don’t send at all.

I know that sounds like a contradiction, but scroll back in the archives if you’re having trouble wrapping your head around that. This site receives ineffective complaints on an almost daily basis — emails that probably should never have been sent.

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They include:

  • Messages featuring angry accusation and filled with emotion: “You’ve ruined my life! You’ve destroyed my happiness!”
  • Emails that threaten: “I will take you to court and sue you and your entire family!”
  • Missives that promise a massive publicity campaign: “I will tell everyone on social media about your incompetence. You hear me? Everyone.”

I probably don’t need to tell you that these tactics are not effective — ever. But how do you know that you’re drafting an email that will fail?

I’ve had several recent opportunities to ask myself that very question. It involves a more personal conflict. But that’s good, because when things get personal, you take things personally.

I wrote a lot of emails. I sent none of them. I’ll tell you how I knew they should never be sent. Here are the questions you should ask before you push the button:

Would sending the email affect the outcome of the case?
That’s the first and perhaps the biggest question. If sending the missive would not affect the results, then why bother? In my particular case, there is only one opinion that matters: that of a judge. Knowing this has made me push the “delete” key on numerous occasions.

Would sending the message just make me “feel” better?
If the answer is “yes” then chances are it’s too emotional, too accusatory, to be of any use. It may actually hurt your case if you send it. Again, I’ve drafted many emails like this. They contain clever one-liners, zingers and insults. They would quite effectively reduce the recipient to a therapy case in urgent need of medication (or self-medication). But they don’t further my cause, so they remain unsent. And this is good because having written the email, I feel better — it was cathartic for me.

Would sending the missive reveal information that could damage my case?
Sometimes, in your zeal to prove the rightness of your cause, you might reveal details that weaken your case or expose you to liability. This happens when people who game loyalty cards inadvertently reveal their strategies when they complain about a program, or when they publish their card-gaming secrets online. I’m not interested in helping these dishonest customers, but we can learn from their mistakes: By revealing their tactics, they hurt themselves.

Would sending the email turn an adversary into an enemy?
Finally, you have to consider the broader effects of any grievance. If your message would so alienate the recipient that it would turn that person into more than an adversary, then you should refrain from sending it. The information in the message may be accurate and presented in a truthful context, but if it also turns that person into an enemy, irrationally devoted to your failure, then what’s the point? I’m not necessarily talking about a person here. I’ve had a prominent travel company do that with me. No fun.

Remember, the one thing you have going for you as you pursue your case is that you’re right and they’re wrong. Whether you’re dealing with a large corporation or an individual, if your case is legitimate, you don’t have to be dramatic about it. When people lie, cheat and steal from you, they won’t get away with it.

6 thoughts on “Don’t send that email until you’ve read this. Seriously, don’t.

  1. It’s time to start a new service: “Should I send this email ? dot com.” You would send them your email and someone looks it over. If it’s good, it’s forwarded on, if not, it goes back to you with edits.

  2. When I write potentially difficult/nasty emails, I put my own email address in the TO: field and not the recipient. That way if I sent it without going over it carefully, it just comes back to me. If after I (and potentially my wife) go over it and it’s good, then I can change the TO: field just before I press send.

  3. What a great column and one that everyone with a complaint should read.

    Write that email but don’t send it. Go back two days later and re-read it. I bet you will change it dramatically or soften it up or perhaps even trash it.

  4. Also, a good employment opportunity for English majors, both for tone and language, as well as grammar and spelling. Great idea.

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