What To Do When You’ve Been Insulted

The other day, I got an email from a client whom I like very much. He’s a cool guy, profitable business, generally fun to work with, pays on time, all the good stuff. His emails are usually brief, casual, and mention something like, “Have a nice weekend,” or “Hope everything’s good with you.”

So it was weird to get an email that was so stilted and formal that it sounded like it was written by the Queen of England’s chamberlain to someone she was too polite to outright call a waste of space.

I sat there dumbfounded. This was not the client I knew. This guy sounded overly formal. He sounded like he had a huge stick up his butt. He sounded like he didn’t like me.

He sounded, in fact, like he was pissed off.

And I was a little insulted myself. There were a few comments in the email that were very polite little jabs at the quality of my work, or so they seemed to me.

I was riled up. My face flushed, and I had enough adrenaline going to make my hands shake a bit as I started to type out a response. “Bang” out a response is probably more appropriate. No delicate tippy-tapping on the keyboard for me. This guy had just insulted me.

Or had he?

I paused. It really didn’t seem like this client to act this way or to take this tone. Maybe there was something going on that I didn’t know about. Maybe he had just come out of a meeting with a client himself and was in a cranky mood. Maybe he simply had no idea that his language sounded insulting.

A lot of people have no idea how they sound in emails. They’re not professionals, and they don’t use email as their main source of communication. They often don’t realize that the same words said aloud in a meeting room would be incredibly insulting in text.

So I waited until I caught my client on chat the next day.

Turns out, he wasn’t angry with me at all. He wasn’t unhappy with my work, and he hadn’t meant anything by those comments. He just hadn’t realized how his email would sound to me.

And I had almost written him an extremely nasty note.

Email is one of the most common forms of communication between freelancers and clients, and all too often, the clients have no idea how they come off. If I turned around and bit the head off every client who roused my ire, I’d have some extremely angry clients.

Many of whom didn’t even deserve it.

That’s not good for my professional reputation. I’d have clients who would otherwise be singing my praises saying to one another, “Don’t hire Taylor. She’s got a temper and blows up at absolutely nothing. You don’t need that. Go with someone else.”

It’s not worth it to win a fight that might not even exist.

So take a lesson from my experience. The next time you get an email that seems to be a thinly veiled jab – or even an outright insult – to you or your work, take a deep breath, wait a bit, and write back a quick email that asks if you can discuss this either via online chat or over the phone the next day.

Be polite. Be friendly. Act as though nothing is wrong.

Chances are that nothing is. But if you react the way your gut tells you to react and shoot back an insulting email of your own, something might go really wrong, really fast.

No freelancer can afford to have that damage to his reputation. Keep a cool head and find out what’s really going on before you go off.

Post by Taylor

Taylor Lindstrom (fondly known as Tei) is a twenty-something copywriter and journalist from Boulder, CO. She’s the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club. She loves the color green, micro-point Uniball pens, and medieval weaponry.

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  1. EXCELLENT ARTICLE! I have had the same experience a few times and usually BANG out a fuming response. BUT I adhere to the rule that angry e-mails must sit in the draft folder for at least 8 hours prior to HITTING the Send button 🙂

    As Freelancers we can also be guilty of sending e-mail that may come across the wrong way, especially when dealing with people from other cultures… For example, I am an American living in Israel and last year acquired a client in Finland. In the course of conducting normal business communication with him, I said something in a marketing tone (via e-mail) that wasn’t received the way I meant it to come across due to cultural differences. Fortunately we had spoken on the phone enough for him to get a feel of my peronality and he took the time to phone me to discuss my “attitude” as he was concerned his CEO might be offended by my “forwardness”. It all worked out well in the end (thanks to him), and I learned an important lesson about taking cultural differences and perceptions into consideration while composing an e-mail.

    E-mail is a blessing, but we must remember to choose our words carefully.

  2. A little late for me, this one. I did type the email when something similar happened, and it ended up destroying a long running business relationship. I’m still not sure to this day if I misinterpreted his original mail or not. It continues to bother me that I may have over reacted. I won’t do the same next time. The only upside in my example is that I was the client, so I haven’t lost business, just a good supplier.

  3. Susan Allport says:

    Thanks for another great post, really enjoyed this one as I sometimes get that, ‘That’s a bit offensive’ fizzle inside, think this advice applies in all areas of life.

  4. It’s really easy to misunderstand email, Tweets, and everything in between. I’ve had this happen several times, just the way you describe it. Thanks for sharing your story…I’m glad I’m not the only one that goes through this.
    .-= Nathan Hangen´s last blog ..How to Quit Your Day Job and Build an Empire =-.

  5. This actually goes beyond emails and I see this a lot of website owners particulary in the IM niche.

    Far too often are articles published (not this one of course) that are written on the back of some bad juju.

    Yes you have to have have fire in your belly and be passionate about your content and business, but a little more care is needed when someone writes an article or sends a tweet that is aimed squarely at someone without actually naming them.

    Again this post was really very good at highlighting this point and I hope that some of the people who do have massive audiences really should think before they publish something written in angst.

    I too get that feeling of the incredible hulk when someone hits me like that but I go for a walk round the garden and think why they said it in the first place and if they are valid in their opinion.

    I think it’s important to address issues but it should be done in such a way that doesn’t inflame the situation especially if the insitgator is looking for that exact reaction.

    Anyway ‘good post’ and well done you for holding your breath long enough to address this the right way
    .-= TheInfoPreneur´s last blog ..I’m Giving You 50% Of My Wages =-.

  6. Any form of writing is very two dimensional and easily misinterpreted. So much of our communication is based on tone, inflections, facial expressions – the nonverbal clues. We have none of that in email, on forums, even in comments on blogs.
    .-= Melinda | SuperWAHM´s last blog ..Kid-Preneurs – Raising Kids to be Entrepreneurs =-.

  7. Back before the earth’s crust cooled, back when the only way you networked online was the way the gods intended you to network online (ie, Usenet), there was a mantra you’d always repeat to yourself:

    “Sit on your hands”.

    ie, always step back and take a breather.

    What I do now if I get pissed off is write my email in notepad, and then, well, sit on my hands. Generally after a few hours I’m able to get real-time chat with the individual in question and sort things out; the writing everything down, however, satisfies my need to get out my emotions quite well.
    .-= Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach´s last blog ..Become An Expert in Mobile Phone Chat/Text Speak =-.

  8. You’re so on-point here. I’ve had more than a few people try to read tone into my emails. That’s been my fault, as I’m a sarcastic person, and t hat doesn’t typically translate well to writing.
    .-= Todd´s last blog ..The great magazine subscription debacle =-.

  9. What Melinda said.

    The written word can be an unruly form of communication. Particularly when humans are involved.

    When it comes down to it, it’s just you, staring at a computer screen. Words that come from another person rattle around in your head, and your Universal Translator doesn’t always fire on the right circuits.

    Good story and wise words, Taylor. Your cautionary tale makes a case for being slightly tardy with email replies. It gives the dust (and the hackles) time to settle.
    .-= Stacey Cornelius´s last blog ..Why great marketing isn’t about getting noticed (and why it’s good to be irrational) =-.

  10. Nice story. Thanks for sharing. Some people are too soft, some are too aggressive. Finding the golden middle is what I am trying to do all the time. keep up the cool head =)
    .-= Edward´s last blog ..Coffee with Friends =-.

  11. Kristian says:

    Unfortunately, true to my Italian heritage, I have the tendency to flare up at even the slightest thing. I often find typing the equally snippy response, then hitting CTRL+ENTER and sending it to myself is good practice.

    Not only does it get the initial anger out of your system, when you get it in your inbox, it also gives you some perspective on how YOU come across on emails!

  12. Email and web communication has started more wars than traditional communication because it lacks emotion, inflections and facial expresions. It is very easy to take posts the wrong way.

  13. Great post Taylor. It is so true that emails can cause knee jerks with very serious consequences so you’ve got to be so careful. I think it is also important to think about your own state when you are reading the mail, this is as much a influential factor in your internalizing the mail as the how the mail is written. It is not uncommon that we have one of those days were everything seems to go wrong, when more than likely the thing that is wrong is our outlook that day:-( So take that deep breath that you mentioned. You are so right in saying that you should follow up delicately to see if there is anything in your assumptions, Innocent until proven guilty:-)
    .-= Darragh Kelly´s last blog ..Taking the pulse of your meetings could be a critical success factor. =-.

  14. Ahem. This hits home in almost any form of online communication. Being a chronic on-impulse-reply person, I´ve managed to (fortunately only *almost* in most cases) ruin a good thing by reading unpresidented and uncharacteristic spite/meaning into comments…

    “Breathe in… Breathe out… Read out loud in a love-poem voice… If it still sounds insulting and mean: shrug off the hurt and take Taylors advice.” 😉
    .-= Þórey Ómars´s last blog ..Triplepeak – part 3 =-.

  15. @Kristian – Same here. In Quebec, the culture is pretty firey and passionate, and what’s common, everyday language for us tends to get a, “WHAT?!” from others. So, not only do I have to temper my general conversational tone knowing that it might be too much for other cultures, I also have to make sure to curb my own responses as well.

  16. I have found that it’s best just to walk away from the keyboard before you hit send and regret it forever.

    Email is more permanent than paper in many cases and all it takes is one nasty comment to satiate your ego and you can lose your whole business.

    Sleep on it before you reply, or at least wait an hour. Your business will thank you for it.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    .-= Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last blog ..Icelandic Volcanoes Can Be a Real Kick in the Ash for Small Business =-.

  17. Thanks for the post. I always double or triple check emails before I send them. It’s too easy to set the wrong tone in an email. Twitter’s worse, and you see the effects immediately as a handful of people un-follow after misreading some innocuous brain fart.

    I can get a bit messed up second guessing other people’s email sometimes. Tehillah’s 8 hour rule sounds great, I bet that saves some grief.
    .-= Dave Rowley´s last blog ..Parenting Is A Creative Act =-.

  18. Great reminder. I talk with people all day long via email and chat and I always have to remind myself that because they can’t see my facial & body expressions and I can’t see theirs, I’ve got to assume everything they say is meant with the best intentions, and therefore respond politely. That doesn’t mean being a pushover, it just means keeping it professional and staying calm and collective.
    .-= Chris Mower´s last blog ..5 Ways to Trim the Fat from Your Next Project =-.

  19. Hi Taylor –

    I remember the first time I had a similar experience. I had the same emotional response as you and bothered me for 3 days. I fortunately didn’t respond in the heat of the moment. During that 3 days I was reviewing what I had done and said that may have contributed to the situation. Played different scenarios in my head of what may have triggered it on their end and mine. I finally came to the conclusion that I may have just misinterpreted the context. It turned out that the message was sent to me while there was one of those “Heads will roll” moments happening on their end. It wasn’t even about me. It did however reflect in the communication I got which was completely out of character. That’s what got to me. No previous indications, no warning, ouch. Waiting 3 days to resolve something isn’t normally a good choice but in this instance it turned out a good move. I should mention an immediate response wasn’t requested.

    I also write a response in notepad as Barbara Ling mentions above. This works well for me. I can start out saying what I feel like saying, then transform it into a inquisitive and problem solving response rather than one that will escalate the problem.
    .-= John Collins´s last blog ..Affiliate Marketing PPC Internet Marketing Pay Per Click Traffic =-.

  20. Humor is especially tricky via email. I have a dry sense of humor. Sometimes I’ll send an email that seems clearly funny to me. When I look at it the next day I am sometimes forced to reevaluate, not quite so sure that the humor came shining through.

    As Stephen Wright once said: I got food poisoning today, not sure when I’ll use it.
    .-= Mark Tanney´s last blog ..Congress Considering Bankruptcy Relief For Private Student Loans =-.

  21. Awesome advice!! I definitely think we should step away from the inbox for a couple of hours after getting what seems like a mean email. It’s better to come back to it calm and composed. I am pretty hot-tempered (it’s that Irish blood, I guess), but what I love about email is that I am given a chance to cool off before responding! That’s much harder to do in person. I am talking about both personal and professional emails.

    I try to be extra friendly in my professional emails because I don’t want to them to be interpreted in the wrong way. I use lots of smiley faces and friendly expressions. The smiley faces are probably kind of annoying, but they reflect the fact that my emails are written in a positive tone. When you write “Thanks.” it just doesn’t have the same nice feeling as “Thanks! :o)”
    .-= Kathleen K. O’Connor´s last blog ..What Krispy Kreme Fever in Japan Can Teach You about Selling with Social Proof =-.

  22. Boy – this one was right on the mark. I have gotten my share of hasty emails AND I have sent my share. Dang – it’s so easy, especially in this hurry, hurry world, to bang out the email and check off “respond to obnoxious email with another obnoxious email” off the ‘to do’ list. Better to wait as you and others suggest. Perhaps even better – pick up the phone and call (or grab the person for quick face-to-face) to check in.

    Email software should come with a filter that checks for obnoxious language and asks “are you sure you want to send this?” when you hit SEND. I’d pay for that 🙂
    .-= Ami´s last blog ..Don’t over-romanticize your calling. Do what you love – at whatever level you can =-.

  23. Great piece, Taylor!

    I studied English at university, and we did a lot of pulling texts apart, examining nuance (I think I wrote a whole paragraph once about the significance of the word “um” in a particular piece…) and so I’m always very aware myself when I’m sending emails of my tone and what might be implied.

    I’ve never had a “nasty” email but I’ve had some which felt abrupt. I’ve also had a few which seemed very demanding and presumptuous from strangers (usually blog readers) and which pushed my buttons a bit … until I took a mental step back and realised that English probably wasn’t their first language, and that their meaning was more important than their exact “tone”.
    .-= Ali Hale´s last blog ..It’s Okay to Spend Money on Yourself =-.

  24. Tehillah – That waiting rule is a good idea for almost anytime that you’re having an unusually emotional response to something. If you get a new client that you can’t wait to work with, you don’t want to send the email that’s fawning all over them. Let it simmer. Calm down. Send in 8 hours.

    Mike CJ – It’s always fortunate when you learn something in a situation where the consequences aren’t TOO dire. Sucky, yes, so you know that something was wrong with your approach. But not so bad that you’ve ruined everything forever.

    Nathan – You are not alone. I am here with you. And now Michael Jackson is in my head. Thanks a lot.

    Infopreneur – That’s very true. I’m guilty of the angry-article-rant myself. I think in general I’ve managed to keep it from going far beyond what I actually intend, but I definitely have written posts purely because I’m pissed off. I know a few people who actually decided to start whole businesses because they were that furious with others in that industry. Anger is one of those forces you have to wrestle with mightily before it can be used for good. But it can.

    Melinda – True. I’ve found that if both you and the email recipient know one another well, they understand that a certain kind of writing or phrasing implies a certain tone. They know you well enough to project that tone. But it’s impossible to expect a stranger, or even just an acquaintance, to do the same.

    Barbara – I often jump to phone communication if I think we’re getting close to angry words in email. Usually once we hear one another’s real tone and concerns, we calm down a lot. The tone of the emails doesn’t change very much at all, but now we have a better perception of the person on the other end.

    Todd – Sarcasm is dangerous. You have to have a lot of training before you can be trusted to wield it in public without hurting people.

    Stacey – Thanks, Stacey. I don’t have much to add to what you’re saying here, but yours are the kind of thoughtful, musing comments I appreciate most. I’m always glad you came around.

    Kristian – That’s a VERY good idea. Sending it to a friend might also work, or a colleague who knows you well.

    Chris – Assuming the best of everyone, sight unseen, is a difficult virtue. It’s the kind of zen that makes you think you’ll never get there. You will.

    Mark – Humor, as with sarcasm, is another difficult one. You’ve got to be damn sure it comes off as humorous, and even more, that your audience, however big, is capable of comprehending humor. Or in the mood for it.

    Kathleen – I’m guilty of the emoticon backup too. I really don’t like emoticons, but they do convey that this is meant as a friendly thing and not as a sarcastic one or even a terse one. If I say something like, “I really need you to rewrite this,” and that’s all I have time to say, a smiley-face makes that statement a lot less angry-sounding.

    Ami – I think that’s right. If you’re out of time, just call. I too would pay for that software. “I noticed you used the word “douchebag”. Would you like to reconsider sending this email?”

    . . . “Yeah, okay. I probably shouldn’t say that. Damn.”

  25. @Ami and Taylor, there is software that checks for late-night emails you may later regret. It’s called Google Goggles. If you have a gmail account, check under settings, then labs, then scroll down to Mail Goggles. It won’t check for obnoxious words, but it will make you do some math problems, which will slow you down before you press that “send” button.
    .-= Jodi Kaplan´s last blog ..Five Simple Tips for Better Email Marketing =-.

  26. Your post was very timely for me. I was responding in email to a contact that was trying to correct something that he perceived was stated incorrectly. The message was not clear so I politely asked for clarification to his request.

    It turned out that he was upset because he felt that we should the term “ethnic slur” instead of “racial remark”. I responded back with a polite “thank you for letting us know” and thought that was that.

    A few hours later I received a response that said “You are clueless”.

    While this comment irritated me and caused me to want to respond, I took a deep breath and archived the email.

    Your post has helped to calm down a lot. After all, I really don’t know the person and have no idea of what he has gone through.

    Thank you for sharing your experience.
    .-= Steve Brogan´s last blog ..… follow-up to “I am a losing poker player!” post! =-.

  27. This is so very true, and I have been on both ends of this situation at one time or another.

    It is all too easy to interpret the written word in a different way than if it was spoken. Tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. go a long way in conveying a thought.
    .-= Rob McGuire´s last blog ..30 Second SEO Tips =-.

  28. Same thing happened to me last week. This is really a great article. When that thing happened to me, I just ignored the person and just continued my work. Thanks a lot.
    .-= Advance Web´s last blog ..Testimonial =-.

  29. Thank heavens for pauses…and email “drafts”!

    Great post, Taylor. I’ll be sharing it:)

  30. Your point is so true. I have had the exact same experience. I thought someone was sending me a harsh email and as it turned out, there was nothing to it. It was good that I took some time to respond. I have also had the same thing happen with an email I sent to someone. He thought I was being rude, when in fact, I really didn’t mean it that way at all. The only thing I could figure out was, maybe I wasn’t totally “present” when I wrote the email. Now, I try to be very present and a lot more cautious when sending emails.

  31. When I receive an email that makes steam come out of my ears, I wait at least an hour or a day if I don’t have to reply to it straight away and see how I feel in the morning. As you say, it might just be you overreacting. If possible, I pick up the phone and speak to them directly.

  32. Taking a breather is so important. I’ve had more than my fair share of emails that I thought were questionable. Getting clarification in a calm tone is important. Then you can go on them. Kidding.

    One of the things I find hard about communication with text forms is that the tone and everyday acceptable sarcasm we use is never translated the same way. We forget that people can’t hear the words we hear in our heads as we’re typing.

    Good reminder.
    .-= Moe´s last blog ..8 Simple Things You Can Do To Make Time for Writing =-.

  33. newjersey says:

    I am usually the one sending the insulting nasty emails, and fully understand how they come off. So sometimes it is ok to fire back with a nasty response.

    Just kidding, kind of.

  34. You’re totally right! Many are clueless on how they sound in the emails they have written and many are way too sensitive to take words as a sharp knife slicing their egos. Any form of feedback should be an opportunity for growth, unless it involves the ‘F’ word. You can always talk about why your client feels that way about your work. You’ll be surprised to learn something. In the end, it can even build a stronger client-provider relationship.
    .-= Issa´s last blog ..Outsourcing: 3 Keys to Performance Hyper-Drive =-.

  35. Excellent post! I have been in that situation many times, both professionally and personally. I actually did have one woman who was being deliberately insulting to me through an e-mail thread that included several co-workers. Thankfully, I had a phone call from one of them reminding me not to give her the satisifaction of a reaction. Most of the time, if someone gets under my skin in an e-mail, I ask my family or friends to read it, or read my response before I send a response. Sometimes it’s best to just walk away from the keyboard.
    .-= Tyrean´s last blog ..Paradise =-.

  36. Great post – and so timely in this day of texting, typing and doing everything BUT speaking face to face. It is so critical that we use common sense, patience and even an unbiased translator in some cases before responding to quickly written e-mails and texts. We could greatly improve the younger generation’s success in business by teaching them these important facts. Not everyone is a great writer so it’s no wonder their written messages may leave huge communication gaps or gaffs for us to ponder.

  37. Bradlee LaDaugheg says:

    So true – good post. I actually shot myself in the foot exactly like this a month or so ago. I lost my temper with a prospect(not a client, thankfully). After wasting several hours with them they continued to want “references” from past clients (I’d already proven myself 10x over – in fact they came to see me in person at a conference)… there were no issues there, they simply wanted to pick the brains of my clients to learn what I had taught the other companies, in order to avoid paying me a fee. That’s common in my industry.

    I usually blow it off but this time it rubbed me the wrong way and I let them have it with both barrels.


    I tried with the the standard fare apology but too late-the prospect decided they’d rather not entertain a proposal. Whether or not this would have ever turned into an engagement – who knows, but even if not I’ve got something I’m not proud of out there floating around that could easily come back to bite me.

    Best bet – follow Taylor’s advice and either don’t respond at all – or do so by PHONE, not e-mail.

  38. When I was in law school, I was a research assistant for a professor and she was often in a bad mood and seemed unhappy with me. I remember calling my dad and telling him about it and he said to me something I’ll never forget – “are you so self centered that you think she’s even thinking about you at all? you have no idea what happened for her that day. a fight with her boyfriend or a lack of sleep. who knows? it’s not about you.”

    I’ve always remembered this and try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt when they are pissy with me.

    It’s not about you. If it is, trust they’ll let you know.

    Or, even better, see it as an opportunity for open dialogue. Write back or say “hey, I get the sense that you are not happy about something or you are feeling tense. Is there something we should talk about or does it have nothing to do with me?”

    I can just about guarantee you’ll have a client for life if you approach your relationship with that kind of open-hearted inquiry, even if by chance they are pissed at you.
    .-= Alexis Martin Neely´s last blog ..Do You Have a Money Map for Your Life & Business? =-.

  39. @ Alexis – You hit the nail on the head. It reminds me of a couple of blog flamers we’ve had – other people were saying, “Kick them off your blog! WTF!” but I sat down and sent them a private email that asked if everything was okay.

    One or two vented, but all of them came to a point where they revealed some huge problem they were dealing with, like losing a house or not being able to do groceries. No wonder that something small set them off like a bomb, and reaching out comletely defused the situation. I’ve made a few close friends as well.

    Or, take the December incident, when I was having insults flung at me left, right and center. Lots of anger going on there, but I just did my job and minded my own business. No point getting upset, because these things say a lot more about other people than they do me.

  40. Taylor, despite writing this over a year ago, you’ve saved another professional from ruining a client relationship. I have a client who I already know to be self-centered and condescending. She pays me well to feed her ego, and I’ve made my peace with it. I overlook her attitude most of the time because our business dealings are primarily at arm’s length. However, once in a while she can’t stop herself from playing Queen Bitch with me, and she did so yesterday. At the heart of it is her insecurity, and if I was to ever tee off on her it would be the proverbial battle of wits with an unarmed (wo)man. But I knew enough to let it go at least overnight, and then seek some advice online. Bingo, found this thread. Thank you Taylor and everyone! I’m going to go with ignoring it, and pretending the email got lost in cyberspace.


  1. […] What To Do When You’ve Been Insulted – Men with Pens […]

  2. […] What to do when you’ve been insulted over at Men with Pens… an insightful look at “reading” emotions in email and how it can lead you astray… sobering thoughts. […]

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