Are Your Emails Unintentionally Rude?

Why, and how, to avoid being rude in your online communication

Posted Sep 14, 2013

Email offers a fast and often very convenient way to interact with our friends, family, and co-workers. There’s no waiting around for a face-to-face meeting to get across quickly the information we need to share with those in our social circle. Unfortunately, because emails don’t communicate either in real time or in the actual presence of our recipients, we can inadvertently have our messages wildly misinterpreted. You can’t stop yourself in mid-sentence in an email when you see that you’re making the other person sad, mad, or just plain stressed.

We also get way too many emails, and the longer your inbox, the less time you have (or feel you have) to respond to each message.  You may be responding to email when you’re tired at the end of the day, half awake in the middle of the night, or still rubbing the sleep out of your eyes when you wake up. Perhaps you’re on your mobile device, leading you to feel even less in need of careful editing before you hit the “send” button.

It’s also possible that you just don’t realize when you’re being rude. What seems to be a matter-of-fact comment or answer to a question in your opinion comes out sounding harsh and critical to your recipient.  The criticism may be warranted, but because the communication is one-way, you can’t frame it in terms that can soften the blow. Sticking an emoticon at the end of the message won’t do the trick either. Remember that your email is being read without any other of the contextual cues that real-life criticism can provide. A wrongly placed exclamation point might even make your criticism sound punitive (“You were late again!!” vs. “You were late again.”).

Research on the interpersonal dynamics of the workplace shows that employees who are the targets of supervisors or co-workers who interact negatively with them on the job are less productive. Not only do stress levels skyrocket when someone treats them rudely, but they become less able to devote their mental resources to the tasks at hand. Similarly, customer service agents at call centers perform less well when the people on the other end of the phone become abusive.

With this background in mind, Quinnipiac University psychologist Gary Giumetti and his colleagues (2013) conducted an experimental study in which they investigated the impact of receiving email messages from “supervisors” that were either uncivil or supportive. The email messages were delivered while the participants completed a series of math tasks. 

Examples of uncivil emails included: “I couldn’t be less confident in your ability, but here is the next set anyway,” and “try these next tasks, genius.” (catch the sarcasm?). These fit the criteria of being condescending or derisive. In contrast, supportive emails said “I definitely appreciate your help on these tasks,” and “I really appreciate your efforts on these tasks.” Such statements reflected a positive supervisory comment in the workplace showing that the employee’s contributions are valued.

Giumetti and team measured both productivity and stress levels of their undergraduate participants under these two conditions. Participants receiving uncivil emails reported having lower mental, emotional, and social energy than they did when the emails were supportive. Their mood was more likely to be negative, they were less engaged with the task, and their performance suffered.

Although the students in this study didn’t show higher physiological stress levels, it’s possible that in a real-life situation, persistent exposure to uncivil email feedback from supervisors would have detrimental effects. Over time, employees exposed to uncivil supervisors do experience more stress-related health problems, particularly as their coping resources begin to fray under the constant pressure.

The emails these students received were uncivil, but they weren’t as harsh or rude as they might have been. Furthermore, the students didn’t have a stake in the game the way we do when we’re interacting with our supervisors, friends, and families in our daily lives. 

Extrapolating to those everyday situations, the damaging effects of rude, uncivil or discourteous email communications can only be that much worse. Parents chiding their children, spouses expressing their anger or even disappointment, and friends rejecting invitations or advice are just a few examples of the kind of email communications that can lead the recipients to feel mentally if not physically depleted.

How can you avoid being unintentionally rude in your own email communication? Are there ways to communicate negative feelings in emails that don’t cut down or belittle your friends, lovers, or co-workers? Here are 5 implications of the study that you can apply to your daily life:

1. The first step to propping up the people you need to share feedback with is to translate criticism into terms that cushion it with support. As professors, we’re taught to use the “criticism sandwich” where we start with something positive (“you’ve put a lot of effort into this paper), then insert your criticisms, though in a neutral and objective way (“these are the areas that need work”), and end on a positive note (“I look forward to seeing your next draft”). Shortcutting the two slices of bread on the top and bottom of the sandwich’s interior will only make the student feel bad and probably lead him or her to make even more mistakes or, worse, give up completely. 

In your own emails to those in your personal and professional circles, consider the same approach when it’s criticism or disappointment that you have to offer.  Sandwich the criticism in between two slices of easily digested white bread.

2. The emails you write should always be ones that you take the time to study before you push that fatal send key. Obviously, some are fine to write quickly and on the fly. “Meet you at 4” requires little deliberation (though make sure you didn’t write “5” instead). The emails that you need to study more carefully do concern those more delicate situations in which you’re sharing information that can be potentially misinterpreted.

3. It’s even advisable, if the situation is sticky enough, that you write the email and then save it as a draft before you send it (especially for those middle-of-the-night, half-asleep missives). If you don’t know the recipient very well, or if you’re writing to request help from someone you don’t know at all, such as a customer service agent, make sure that your language is respectful and considerate.  End by saying “Thanks” or “Thanks!”  At all costs, avoid using ALL CAPS, which are the email equivalent of screaming in someone's face.

4, After you've written your email, use some empathy. Read your email as if you were receiving it from someone else. How would it make you feel? Would you feel annoyed, saddened, or self-critical? If so, then you need to reword the email to soften the language and tone.

5, Needless to say, watch out for that holy terror of the “reply all” option. Emails that come from a group are especially dangerous if you don't pause before responding. However, you can also suffer from the auto-correct function in which your email provider completes email addresses for you. "Erik" may be someone you want to share personal feelings to; "Eric" may be a co-worker who you hardly know and would be mystified by your message. 

The moral of the story is simple: Never write an email that you would be ashamed to see printed out on paper.  You may be writing in cyberspace, but remember that it’s a person at the other end of that message. Keep your emails civil, respectful, and carefully composed, and your online communications will serve you well.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013 


Giumetti, G. W., Hatfield, A. L., Scisco, J. L., Schroeder, A. N., Muth, E. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (2013). What a rude e-mail! Examining the differential effects of incivility versus support on mood, energy, engagement, and performance in an online context. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18(3), 297-309. doi: 10.1037/a0032851