By Susan Keats, Contributor & Seize-the-Day Propagandist

“I’m sorry.  Do I know you?”

That was the reply I received to an email inquiry I sent to a teacher at a local school.  I was hoping to find piano lessons for one of my children and I wanted to find a really good teacher, so I sent out a few emails to people asking for recommendations.

No matter how I read her reply, it seems rude to me.  I’ve tried to read it out loud in a variety of voices:

Sweet voice:   “I’m sorry.  Do I know you?”  Seems a little sarcastic.
Casual voice:  “I’m sorry?  Do I know you?”  Hmmm…..still a little snarky.
Sexy voice:  “I’m sorry….do I…, KNOW you?”  Totally inappropriate.

I’m guessing I annoyed her with my request.

This is interesting though because a few days later I sent an email to someone.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”  my email began.

I was asking about his services as a teacher and I was very eager to hear back from him.  He has a great reputation and I was excited to find out if he would consider teaching my daughter.  But the longer he took to reply to my email, the more full of self-doubt I became.  Maybe she isn’t the kind of student he wants.  Maybe he just doesn’t have time for another student.  Maybe he just won’t answer my email at all, because perhaps he was also annoyed?  Maybe I send annoying emails?

After what seemed to me to be a reasonable wait, but hearing nothing, I wrote again thinking he would sense my friendly, hopeful character: “Oh, I guess you do mind.” I said apologetically.  “Never mind.”  I put a little smiley face after it to indicate my good-intentions.

man screaming at computerI awoke the next morning to a scathing email written by a terribly angry and insulted person.  He found my “oh, I guess you do mind” comment to be out of line.  He felt undeserving of my scorn. It was NOT OK in his book.  “Forgive me if I find that offensive and rude.” he wrote.

Oh no!

I looked back over what I had written.  Well….I guess if you’ve had a really bad day (which he said he’d had) you might come home and read it with that frame of reference.

Peeved voice:  “Oh, I guess you DO mind! Never MIND!”
Snarky voice:   “OH, I guess you DO mind.  NEVER MIND!”
Horrible, disrespectful, another-rotten-person-in-my-day-making-me-miserable voice:


Sigh.  The problem is, of course, that I didn’t write it with any of those voices.

The fact is you really don’t know how someone will read your email.  If they come home exhausted, or have had a bad day, and they open up an email, you just don’t know how the voice in their head is reading it.

Crestfallen, and at a loss for what to do, I called my friend Mae and shared the situation with her.

“That’s why people use those emoticons” she said.  “To indicate the emotion they are feeling when they write something.”

“But I put a smiley face on it, and he still thinks I’m a big jerk.” I said.

“Some people hate emoticons” she said. “If only we can art-direct our emails, we could put in parenthesis the emotions that should go with our writing. That way no one will misunderstand.”

“I like that idea!” I said (sits straighter in chair, enthusiastically grips phone.)

Next I sought advice from my wise friend Kate.

“You know,” she began “when people used to write letters they might have had to wait 8 months or MORE to get a response.  Now-a-days, we all want instant replies.  How much time did you give him to reply anyway?”

“Um..” (looks into lap.) “not quite two days.” (Face palm).

“You know,” Kate says, “not everyone checks their email or Facebook messages constantly.  Sometimes people have other things to do.”


“You are totally right.” I agree. (makes wavy, sad, Charlie Brown face while wringing hands.)

“Was this a friend?” asked my mom later in the day after hearing my sad tale.

“No, I don’t know him.” (dawning look of understanding.)

“Well, you really shouldn’t write in such a familiar way to a business contact,” mom said.  “That really isn’t appropriate.”

(Bangs head on table.)

“He kinda over-reacted,” my brother said on the phone that night.

“I thought that maybe he did too,” I said. (Feels a little better.)

“But my wife NEVER lets things get that far,” he said. “The moment an email correspondence goes sour, she picks up the phone and calls the person.  We forget that we used to always TALK to each other.”

Besides feeling miserable with myself, I decided that if anything could be salvaged from this situation, I should at least try to learn something. I went to my computer and looked up “Email Misunderstandings.”

Wow, it turns out that this is an extremely regular thing to have happen.  The tone of emails is commonly misunderstood, leading to poor communication, hurt feelings, angry rebuttals, and even the breakup of friendships.

So now I have compiled a few pointers that seem appropriate to my own situation, and will certainly help me to not make a similar mistake in the future. I’d like to share what I’ve learned:

  1. Business emails should maintain a business tone. Don’t write a business email using the same causal language you use with your friends.  Being too familiar can get you into trouble.
  2. Writing too short a message can take on a brusque tone and may be misread as angry or demeaning. Always add a greeting and a cordial closing.
  3. If you find that an email has made you angry, don’t reply with anger.  The best thing to do is phone the person.  When you can hear the tone of someone’s voice, you may just realize that no harm was intended.  Nearly half of all emails are apparently misunderstood. Avoid this by being pleasant and be sure you really know what someone meant before you assume it was something negative.
  4. Give people enough time to reply.  A few days may not actually be enough, a week is much better.
  5. Don’t assume that just because your friends know you, love you, and think you’re a wonderful person, doesn’t mean that any of that is conveyed in an email just because you wrote it.
  6. Add your own here, I know there’s plenty more for me to learn.

I did apologize to him from the very bottom of my heart and soul.  Sometimes I stick my foot in my mouth.

So what about the “I’m sorry.  Do I know you?” lady.  She ruffled my feathers by making the same classic email mistakes.  She may be the most wonderful, witty, and charming woman in the entire world.  I will not assume anything.

I know what happens when you ass u me.

(Turns off computer. Walks away.)


Photo credit:
Susan-KeatsSusan Keats ~ In 2010 Susan received life-changing news after a routine mammogram. She had breast cancer. After plenty of tears, anxiety and soul searching, she finished treatments and is now entering a year of renewal, growth, and recovery. Susan hopes that those who are just stepping into the experience of illnesses or crises will find the same comfort and inspiration that she felt when others shared their experiences and wisdom with her. She is looking forward to rediscovering parts of herself that she had allowed to fall away. This is going to be a great year!

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7 Responses to EMAIL MISUNDERSTANDINGS: (Open Mouth, Insert Foot)

  1. Merle says:

    Great article. # 3 is
    the best tip.

  2. VERY VERY GOOD (Screaming with joy), couldn’t have done it better myself. (sending you a hug)

  3. Jill says:

    I find this happens way to often with my teenage daughter and texting. The other day she said, “my friend is really mad at me, she didn’t use exclamation points like she usually does.”

    Loved your article!

  4. Steve Saunders says:

    I’m sorry am I supposed to learn from this article? : ( : )

  5. Lorraine says:

    Dear Sue,

    You’ve well captured what we all experience in the heavily emailed world today! Thanks for the refreshing reminder to think twice before sending and to add indicators of tone to my messages. I am inspired by your courage to share your story so we all can learn together : )

  6. nancy says:

    Oh my goodness! Your are the funniest writer in the world. I love the ‘behavior directions’ in parentheses! You have started a much needed trend! Everyone one can make a mistake. The question is can we forgive ourselves?

  7. Karen says:

    When I started a job a year ago to my shock and dismay e-mail was (remains) THE form of communication. I am a social worker, e-mail is a tough sell for us. Everything you said is true. Not only could I NOT get to know people, colleagues, and professionals in a new job, but I was gauging tone in the written message. I would call and leave messages and they would respond by e-mail. It’s very frustrating, people are becoming afraid of true verbal face to face communication. E-mail
    and text allow for bad behavior. I am with you and your bloggers: PICK UP THE PHONE!!! Good article!!

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