Real Simple's Modern Manners columnist shares her experiences.

Computer desk
Credit: James Baigrie

Not long ago, I received an annoying e-mail from a colleague, and in a moment of crankiness I’m not proud of, I added my own catty remark and forwarded it to a friend. Moments later, the original sender wrote me back, confused and asking, “Was that a joke?” My heart dropped down to my feet in horror; apparently I had hit Reply instead of Forward (a rookie mistake, I know). I panicked, unsure if I should admit my error and apologize or go with the “Ha-ha-ha! Of course I was kidding!” approach, which seemed less hurtful, albeit dishonest. I ultimately decided to take the fall and own up to my comment, admitting my colleague had brought up a topic I was touchy about, and she was game enough not to take offense.

I got off relatively easy, but most people aren’t that lucky. A friend of mine accidentally sent an e-mail to her mother that was intended for her husband that read, “My &@*!@ mother is driving me &@*!@ insane!!!!” (And, no, she didn’t use punctuation marks in her e-mail.) I can hear the sound of daughters and mothers alike, cringing across the planet. That e-mail sparked an enormous fight, and incredibly, mother and daughter have not spoken since.

Another friend had the misfortune of receiving an e-mail meant for someone else, which attacked a book he had written. In that case, my friend chose not to confront the sender, which means he’s now walking around with information he shouldn’t have, while the sender is walking around blissfully unaware that her true feelings about his book were made known.

These nightmare stories, combined with my own, have led me to follow this rule to the letter: Never put anything in an e-mail you wouldn’t be happy to have read on the evening news (or The Daily Show). In fact, let’s take it a step further and say that using e-mail for just about anything other than logistical planning can be deadly. It was only recently that a friend told me that something I had written her years ago, which was meant to offer support during a difficult time, had upset her. At first I was shocked; I thought I had sent a purely positive message. But hearing it from her perspective, I could understand how one sentence I wrote might have hit her the wrong way. In e-mail, a dropped comma or an innocent attempt at humor can end up relaying the opposite of the message you intended, alienating the very person you’re trying to appease.

If you are angry or upset or want to apologize for something, resist the temptation to unload it all into an e-mail. Instead, pick up the phone or speak in person. Sure, it’s scarier, but trust me―in the end, you’ll save yourself a lot of stomach acid. You’ll both get more information by hearing each other’s voices. And if there are any hurt feelings, you can address them right away, as opposed to having them fester in electronic hurt-feelings Siberia.

Read more of Julie’s answers to your etiquette conundrums.