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Talking Point – Vinegar or Honey?

For those working in retail or the service sectors, the old adage “the customer is always right” is a mantra we have had deeply embedded into our conscious and subconscious minds, and most of us strive to believe it, but putting aside whether the customer is actually always right or not, how we respond is often down to how we’re spoken to, and that applies even more to the emails we receive. In fact, emails are usually far less forgiving than verbal complaints. And unlike verbal exchanges, they can last indefinitely and be dragged out of retirement to haunt you forever.

I have some pet email hates – hot buttons that instantly get my back up – which I thought I’d share with you (along with some preferred ways of doing things), and I’m sure you’ll be able to relate to at least some of them, as they probably bug you too.

Shouty emails

For years we’ve been told not to use upper case (capital letters) when typing an email, no matter how unhappy we are about something. It’s a real negative, even if it’s just a few words used in upper case to emphasise a point. Just don’t do it. It’s disappointing that some people don’t ‘get it’ and still send shouty emails, but fortunately these are pretty rare these days and only seem to come from the ignorant or the unenlightened.

Naggy emails

If you’ve emailed someone about a problem, chances are it’s already in hand, and especially so if you’ve received an acknowledgement, so there’s no need to keep emailing about it or forwarding examples of the same issue that you’ve already sent.

The reality is, that as well as being really annoying, it’s also a huge waste of everyone’s time. Would you prefer to have your problem fixed or have the problem-solver bogged down reading and replying to repetitive emails?

Gappy emails

If you have a problem and you want it sorted, ensure you provide enough information about the problem so that this can happen. Providing just a vague overview of the problem, usually out of context, is helpful to no-one. If possible, include information that is relevant to the problem, and therefore will help with the solution.

If you’ve ever had to complete an insurance claim, you’ll know what I mean by this. Insurance companies want to know the time and place of the event, what you were doing at the time, who might have been affected and a whole lot of other stuff, before they’ll even look at your claim.

The whole point of this is to save everyone’s time, so best to supply as much info as possible at the beginning.

Mystery emails - answering a question with a question

If your problem-solver asks you a question about a problem, chances are the answer is required in order to fix the problem. Don’t answer with a question, especially if you also don’t provide the answer to the original question in your response. Everyone just gets to run around in circles when this happens and any progress isn’t just hampered, it’s usually killed outright.

Scattergun emails

I’ve never understood why some people copy every person and their dog into an email. It’s usually the behaviour of someone who is out of their depth and is either seeking collusion (or support) from those higher up the food chain than them, or a pathetic attempt at “I’m telling on you”. It invariably backfires as it leaves the recipient easily able to ‘reply to all’ with their side of the story - which is often a different version of what actually happened - displayed to all recipients.

If the email is written as a put-down, with the intention of putting the recipient into a bad light or showing disrespect to them, and copied to other people lower down the food chain who they will continue to have a relationship with, it will cause discomfort to all parties and doesn’t help with relationship building. Seriously, what do they hope to achieve by doing this? Clearly a sign of an inferiority complex or an indication of poor leadership (dare I say bullying) on behalf of the writer.

Catch flies with honey not vinegar

It’s not rocket science, but it seriously works. If you’re nice to someone then they’ll probably want to help you and will be nice back to you. Conversely, if you’re horrible (rude, unpleasant, bossy, bullying, shouty, nasty, sarcastic, demanding or downright bitchy – take your pick) there’s a good chance you’ll get back what you give out. The law of reciprocity comes into play.

The old expression about catching more bees or flies with honey, than vinegar is absolutely spot on. But make sure you at least appear to be genuine and not condescending, as the person on the receiving end will quickly see through your faked attempts at being nice.


There’s no point in ripping strips off someone in your email and then ending it with love and kisses – you’ll just come across as inconsistent and stupid. Grovelly emails are in the same camp and you’ll be seen as super-needy, weak or a touch pathetic. It’s impossible to get the tone of an email right, so stick to the facts and leave the emotions out of it.

In the days of public speaking face-to-face in front of an audience (pre Covid and Zoom), the rule of thumb of how the mind determines meaning was 55% visual (what you see), 38% vocal (how it sounds, e.g. tone) and 7% verbal (actual words), making 93% of communication non-verbal in nature. Source: Dr Albert Mehrabian. It would be interesting to see if anyone has undertaken similar serious research on communicating by email, though a quick search on Google will bring up screeds of sites that look at the advantages and disadvantages of using email as a means of communication for business. Here’s one that you might want to check out.

In conclusion

Well, that’s a snapshot of what annoys me on the subject of email correspondence and some suggestions on following accepted main-stream email etiquette. I could have also mentioned my distaste of receiving chain emails where I have to forward recipes, jokes, money etc to those in my contacts address book, the incessant online surveys I’m pestered to complete (the ones that will only take you 20 seconds but invariably take at least 20 minutes), or the ones begging for your sponsorship or support for causes of dubious authenticity, but I thought I’d save those for another time.

So yes, I guess the customer is always right in their mind at least, but two wrongs will never make a right, and it’s far better to work together on a problem, than as adversaries playing the blame game.


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