At some point in your life, someone probably shared the classic wisdom: “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all.”
This advice predates Twitter, email and other forms of digital communication that have made it much easier to critique others from the comfort of your own home.
As someone who frequently writes, and has sent hundreds of newsletters, I am used to receiving feedback. I’m usually happy to entertain a dialogue—especially when someone is engaging thoughtfully with the ideas in my posts. However, I’ve found it interesting over the years how often people reach out with a fundamentally unkind tone or message, especially when it is either unnecessary or unwarranted.
Typos are a good example. Occasionally, I miss a typo or spelling error in the editing process, which is not my superpower. While some people reach out with a cordial “hey, just wanted to let you know,” more often I get messages from grammar fanatics that are rude and frankly, pretty elitist in their tone or approach. A few incidents recently led me to think about some best practices to consider before writing an email that is unkind or unfriendly in its nature.
Wait 24 hours before sending anything negative.
It’s never a good idea to send something when you are in an emotional or reactive state. For this reason, most of us can benefit from holding emails in our draft folders until we can review them with a clearer head. I covered this topic extensively in a Friday Forward called “Cooling Off.”
Don’t make assumptions.
You probably know the famous saying about assumptions. I can’t count the number of times I have received a message with an assumption or assertion that is just incorrect. Rather than assume, try asking a question that gets at the same outcome. For example, instead of “Why are you taking away X benefit?” it would be better to pose the question: “Am I correct in understanding that this change will result in the loss of X benefit?” The latter accomplishes the same, but with more tact and wiggle room if it turns out your assumption was wrong.
Don’t shoot and duck.
A few weeks back, I used a popular quote in a Friday Forward and intentionally cited Author Unknown as the attribution. I subsequently received several notes “letting me know” I had not given the proper attribution, with each replier mentioning the person most frequently credited with the quote.
However, after using many quotes throughout my books, I have learned that the vast majority of them are misattributed or ambiguous. And in my research, I learned that the source of the quote is actually in dispute.
I replied nicely to everyone who sent me a note, and explained my experience that quotes are often misattributed to the most well-known person who used it I even sent a fact-checking page noting the uncertainty of the quote, which cites its earlier use and disputed nature. However, only one person replied to acknowledge the new information or their incorrect assertion, which I found ironic.
Ask yourself, is this about me or the other person?
It’s always good to take a step back and ask yourself “why” when something trivial causes you so much anger or discomfort. Typos and grammar are a great example. I’ve found that people who have visceral or disproportionately negative reactions to typos are very often just perpetuating a cycle of mistreatment from a drill sergeant teacher, a highly critical parent or a domineering boss who caused some psychological harm and created a reflexive intolerance of even small mistakes. Our knee-jerk reactions often have deep psychological roots.
Certainly, there is a time and place for criticism and constructive feedback, especially in situations where we have an established, trusting relationship with the recipient. However, study after study shows we all need more praise than criticism, especially kids and employees in the workplace. A high criticism-to-praise ratio is also one of the leading indicators of divorce.
Before you hit send on that next unfriendly tweet, comment or email, think about your own praise-to-criticism ratio. If you have a negative one, it’s probably time to make some changes in your own communication style, not only for the impact you have on others, but also for your own benefit.
Because the bottom line is that those of us who are unkind to others, especially strangers, are likely the unkindest to ourselves.
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