How Do You Respond To “Difficult” Emails?

Published: Jul 18, 2012

By Anita Bruzzese, freelance writer on topics related to workplace/career issues

There’s nothing quite like getting a rude email. Whether it’s filled with sarcastic or unkind comments or simply so curt that feels like a slap, it is often difficult to figure out how to respond. Ignore it? Respond with an equally rude message? Send a note demanding an apology?

Here’s how to handle an email that makes your blood boil:


1.      Take a deep breath. Getting miffed at a missive is much easier to do when you’re tired, hungry or overwhelmed. Don’t even think of responding until you know you’re in a calmer state of mind.


2.      Sleep on it. If possible, don’t respond the day you receive an upsetting email. If you do have to respond, try to get a friend to meet you for lunch or call on a mentor to help you talk through your options. Even taking a short walk or going to the restroom to wash your hands can help you get over your shock and anger so you can think more clearly.


3.      Never respond in kind. Even if the sender didn’t show you any courtesy, the best policy is to respond professionally.  Always keep in mind that your email could be viewed by higher-ups, so show that you take the high road and don’t sink to name-calling or snide remarks. Always ask yourself: “Would I be comfortable for human resources to have this email in my personnel file?”


4.      Try to get the person on the phone or to speak in person. Sometimes the sender has something going on in his or her personal or professional life that has led to the rude tone of the email. Often, the person isn’t even really aware of how the message made you feel, so don’t go in with your temper flaring. In many cases, just a brief conversation is enough to smooth things over and help you understand better.


5.      Let it go. Even if you don’t get a satisfactory resolution to the issue of a rude email, you’ve got to learn to let it go. Remove it from your in box, and put it in another folder. It’s a good idea to hang onto such messages in case a pattern emerges of abusive emails from this person because then it might be a matter for your manager or human resources. But there’s no reason you have to be reminded of it every day, and tell yourself just as you’re dumping it from your in box, you’re going to erase it from your mind.


6.      Learn from it. While you may think you never send a snarky email, would colleagues agree with you? Work emails are different than texts to friends or family, and failing to include a greeting or polite sign off can be seen as dismissive or rude. Are you remembering to always follow etiquette rules such as saying “please” and “thank you”? Remember how you felt getting a rude email, and take steps to ensure no one can accuse you of the same.


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