howler e-mails We have been reading about misinterpreted e-mail messages in the course of business networking and I recently cited a post from the VirtualHandshake blog here, which talks about preventing flame wars.

*For those who have not read any of the Harry Potter’s, a “howler” is a letter written by a parent to his child who has done something bad/wrong. A howler arrives via an owl, if not opened quickly, automatically unfolds and reads itself out “VERY LOUDLY” and once done reading, goes into explode into flames and a puff of smoke – it’s MAGIC. The howler is an obvious form of scolding and anger venting method.

As I grow to understand life less and less, I learn to live it more and more.
-Jules Renard, writer (1864-1910)


Interpret less

How can we be sure what the other person meant when they wrote an e-mail to us? It isn’t a face-to-face conversation [even in face-to-face conversations we’re always guessing what the person “really” meant].

Give the benefit of doubt

We should have the graciousness to give the writer the benefit of doubt. With the increasing importance of e-mail communication, we need to understand it’s shortcomings and accept the same. Not only should we give the benefit of doubt, we must first think that the person must have written whatever they have written, to our benefit. That they had good intentions when they wrote the e-mail.

When in doubt, ASK

If you think that the person’s e-mail language/thought is unwarranted, then write to them and ask them what it is about. Tell them how you felt and what made you feel that way and mention that you would like to clarify. 99 times out of 100 the writer will respond with a “Sorry I was misunderstood” or “Sorry I was not clear enough”.


If you do not know the person well enough and the person has been blatantly rude, don’t take it personally. It is not your problem, it’s the writer’s problem. Ignore. Especially if the person is retorting to a personal e-mail on a public forum and attacking you individually.


Be Brief

Don’t ramble, PLEASE. E-mail is best when used as a very specific medium of communication. And by that I don’t mean that e-mails are/should not be long, I mean they should effectively and quickly say what they want to convey – and THAT’S IT.

Don’t mix subjects

If you are writing about how your dog’s doing, write only about that [although I doubt you’ll have anyone ‘e-mail’ you to ask that…]. If you are writing to explain about your latest job, write only about the “job” – factually, objectively. If you are writing about what your personal opinion is about ‘anything’, do not say what you think a third person believes or what the general public thinks – because that’s what you “think” – you do not know it. The best way to do this is to see what the subject line says – then follow that. Separate subject, separate e-mail.

Reply to the individual

If it is a group e-mail and there is something you would like to personally discuss with an individual, reply to the person who wrote the e-mail, not to the whole group. Otherwise you will be writing an e-mail that will be irrelevant to the group and might antagonize the original writer. Unless it’s an e-mail praising someone. Remember: Praise in public, insult / criticize / reprimand in private.


I am all for knowing what someone else thinks. I appreciate diverse thoughts and opinions. But what I appreciate most is when someone who does not agree with my point of view writes to me saying that they do not agree with my “opinion”. They don’t say that they don’t agree with “me”. My opinion might change tomorrow and they might agree with that but I will stay the same, intrinsically, and if someone does not agree with “me” now, it’s unlikely that they will agree with me tomorrow. If you are the sender of an e-mail which is meant to convey a difference of opinion and if you say that you don’t agree with the person – you’ve got it all wrong mate! The message you’ll be sending is “I don’t like you”. The reader’s mind will read it and interpret that “This person does not like me”. Don’t criticize the person, criticize the opinion/idea/thought.

As always this is not a comprehensive list – these are things that work for me.


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