How to Respond to Rude Email at Work

Six Parts:What qualifies as rude in an email?Whoa! Taking your time to grasp the intent firstClarifying the real intentReplying to the emailDealing with a pattern of rude emailsOffice Etiquette

You've reread it three times and still it seems like the email message was nothing but rude. But should you call them and clarify if they meant to be rude... or not? Netiquette at work is as important as anywhere else. Allowing the standards of politeness to slip simply because the medium used emboldens people who would usually not be so forthright in a face-to-face context is not acceptable. However, it's also important to be realistic and objective about those emails that you think are rude but might be quite something else. So, the next time your boss, co-worker, or even the head honcho at work sends you what you think is a rude email, here's what you might like to do.

Part 1
What qualifies as rude in an email?

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    Discern what a rude email probably looks like. It's easy to misinterpret the intent, tone, and words of an email. Obviously, an email doesn't come equipped with facial expressions, voice tone, and body language, so if you're feeling swamped with work, sugar-depleted, and feel like you just want to get out of the office, it can be easy to make the mistake of assuming negative intent in an email where there was none intended. Signs that you might have a rude email include:
    • The language used is clearly abusive and/or derogatory. (If you do receive an email filled with foul language, this is likely to be a breach of your workplace policy, and it's highly unprofessional. It can also be cause for legal action depending on what is said, especially if you feel threatened, harassed, or slurred.)
    • The email is written in all capitals (yelling)[1] or particular parts of it that express demands or condescension are written in all capitals. (Be aware that some bosses and coworkers are still grappling with the All Caps key, so they may need to be simply excused out of sheer laziness or lack of "getting with it".)
    • The email is basically a demand with no hello, please, thank you, or closing name. Not using your name and not signing off is fine for an email that is an ongoing interaction but when it's the first email for a fresh topic and it's making a demand or giving instructions, then it's impolite to leave out these small courtesies in a workplace context.[2]
    • The email refers to you unkindly (personal digs) or levels accusations at you and/or suggests that you do X, Y, Z, or else.
    • A rude email may have a lot of exclamation marks or question marks in it. Multiple uses of "!!!!!!" and "??????" is often viewed as being rude or condescending.[3] However, it can also be a sign of emphasis, so don't use this alone as an indicator.
    • The sender is copying in someone else who is in charge of both of you as a means of "coercing" you into doing something.[4]

Part 2
Whoa! Taking your time to grasp the intent first

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    Read the email carefully before making up your mind as to its intent. If you simply scanned it and decided it was rude, it is vital to read it with greater care. Even if you read it carefully the first read, reread it to ensure that you haven't missed anything or you're not reading things into it that are not there. And it's a good idea to ask yourself what it is about the email that has upset you so much. This can be another clue as to what the content intends to convey to you; for example, if you're already having a dispute with a coworker or boss and this email comes at the tail-end of a heated discussion, then it's understandable that you'll view it poorly straight away. On the other hand, if there has been no indication that your coworker or boss is annoyed with you, then perhaps you're misreading it.
    • What is the intent behind the words?
    • Is this person known for poor communications or someone who is normally polite? Even with someone who is normally polite, they may be struggling to put across a message effectively using the email rather than aiming to be rude.
    • Is this person perhaps just posturing, trying to appear more forceful by email than they have the courage to be face to face? In such a case, it may be more a case of bluffing around the edges in the hope you'll do what they're too afraid to ask you to your face.
    • Are there elements of the email you simply don't understand? In this case, you're probably better off assuming nothing until you know more. People who type fast often drop words, and some people don't think that proper punctuation or spelling is needed in emails. And then there is a growing tendency to use texting in emails, which can be hard to interpret if you don't understand it.
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    Consider what you sent prior to receiving the supposedly rude email. Did a rude email come about as a result of something you sent? Check to see that you've followed good etiquette too. Sometimes your well-meaning message can spark a nasty response!
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    Avoid assuming that you know the sender's emotional state. Check that you're not making assumptions about the sender's emotional state.[5][6] Poor communication skills, misguided sarcasm or joking, and just plain lazy or sloppy writing can all lead a reader to think that the written piece is rude when it means nothing more than that a person wanted to say something but didn't get it out right. Realize that few people are highly skilled writers in a short space of time and most people write quickly with the intent to get the message off their to-do pile so they can get on with the next bit of work.
    • There are exceptions to this rule, of course. If you're already having a difficult time with the person in question at a face-to-face level, it's quite possible that they're letting their emotional side slip into their email communications. All the same, play it by context, not by expectation.
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    Hold off replying, also known as "review, don't react". Until you feel you've both understood the message objectively and calmed down, it's important not to reply. In replying quickly, you may be tempted to be just as rude, thereby compounding the problem. Even worse is to reply rudely when the original intent of the email meant nothing of the sort! So, take a breather. Close the email and take a walk. Have a cup of coffee, stretch, and do something different for a bit to clear your mind. That way, when you come back feeling a little calmer, you can reread the email and decide whether or not it's still as upsetting to you as when you first read it.
    • Never reply in anger and always sleep on an angry reply. Long-term consequences follow from having angry words in a written record form.
    • The more emotionally charged you are and the more emotionally charged the email, the more important it is to sleep on your reply.

Part 3
Clarifying the real intent

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    Seek clarification. If you can, simply pop over and talk to the person about what they meant in their email. Resorting to face-to-face communication is more likely to clear things up than any other approach. However, it's not possible for many people who work far apart from one another, or even in different locations, states, or countries. Try telephoning as the next step, if this option is open to you. Speaking on the phone will help you to clarify things much faster than having to email back and forth. And if you really have no other choice, or it simply feels more appropriate for you to reply by email, then be polite and professional in your response. For example:
    • Dear Kevin, Thanks for your message. I wasn't really sure how to interpret "Do you think you can muster the will to pull yourself away from the watercooler and start working on the Noxos report? I'm wondering if I'll be forced to reconsider your role here." I have to say that I read it as being quite brusque and lacking in recognition of my professionalism. I am aware that there is a deadline and am on track to meet it; I was merely taking a very short break to refresh before I returned to completing the report. If you are worried about my progress, then I am happy to come/phone and explain where I am up to. Yours, Nelly.
    • Or perhaps a more humorous approach (you'll need to work in the right kind of place!): Dear Kevin, Thanks for your perceptive email message. I realize that hanging around the watercooler could be perceived as time-wasting. However, you'll be pleased to know that as a result of my watercooler mini-break of precisely 2 minutes and 23 seconds, I was able to find out that Jim has already worked on the same figures as those in our report and that means I can have it finished by this evening instead of tomorrow morning. I will be happy to forward you the finished report before I leave work this evening. By the way, I love your new shoes; I spotted them under the curtain while I was at the watercooler. Nelly

Part 4
Replying to the email

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    Reread your reply after you've composed it. Reread it at least three times to ensure that you haven't responded with rudeness or sound overly emotional. Maintain a professional and polite tone throughout the email and remove anything from it that is unnecessary or contains assumptions about the other person's state of mind. Keep the email simple, to the point, and without any inflammatory statements. As 101 Email Etiquette Tips suggests, "type unto others as you would them type unto you."[7]
    • Consider that you are being an example of politeness by not buying into the rudeness or any insinuations. Stern professionalism is appropriate but name-calling, cursing, accusing, and abusing is not okay; nor is using formatting in such a way as to "appear" aggressive (misuse of exclamation marks, etc.).[8]
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    Realize that it's fine not to reply sometimes.[9] Sometimes it may just be better the let the rude email go. Perhaps the sender didn't know all the facts, got out of the wrong side of bed that day, or was just not thinking straight for various reasons. If you think that it might be best to just let it go and there is no need for confirmation of what was sent, or no need to answer a question, etc., then consider just letting this one slip into the ether. Act like you never received it, provided you still do the work you're expected to.
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    Keep up your end of the bargain. If in doubt about whether or not to send an email you've written when you're feeling anxious, angry, or annoyed, and you think that your feelings might be too evident in the email, leaving you open to a charge of being rude, press draft or delete. Do not send it until you've had time to think it through. Be an example of polite and professional email usage at all times.

Part 5
Dealing with a pattern of rude emails

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    Talk to your boss or human resources if there appears to be a pattern of rude emails developing. You should not be subjected to rudeness, harassment, or threats in the workplace. Harassment and threats are actionable, and rudeness is simply something a well-run workplace can do without, or morale is threatened. Keep the emails that concern you as evidence of what you've been subjected to, so that you have a record and can back up what you're saying.


  • Email is difficult even for a pro, remember that conveying emotions and intent correctly is not always possible in email. Even if it is, the recipient may not ever "get it".
  • One way of dealing with a coworker who sends consistently rude emails is to CC in your boss or another relevant coworker every time that you reply (a sort of reverse coercion in that you're coercing them into keeping things polite). Keep your own tone polite and non-threatening and let the rude coworker's words speak for themselves.
  • Realize that you don't have to put up with someone else's bad day.
  • If the sender is someone with a history of being rude over email, remember that and approach the email accordingly.
  • If you want to type your own anger out, do it on a blank email or Word document. That way, you can discard it and won't accidentally hit send on the reply button.
  • Suggest that your workplace have a session on email etiquette. If nobody knows how to give this seminar, then send out for someone who does; that could be a sign that such training is needed.


  • Avoid falling into the habit of emailing your coworkers and boss about absolutely everything when just a few footsteps would have you in front of their desk and able to talk face to face. A workplace that has fallen into the habit of always emailing and never talking despite proximity reduces the enjoyment of working with others and increases the chances of thoughtless communications using a medium that doesn't moderate behavior in the same way as seeing another person in front of us does. Professor Clay Shirky recommends to start communication face-to-face and then move on to email. Even saying "Hi" every morning goes a long way to facilitating the social glue.
  • Some people are ticking time bombs and can vent more anger on you if you respond rudely. Stay polite and professional and if you have any concerns or you're afraid, speak to your boss or human resources about it.
  • Anything libelous, offensive, harassing, defamatory, racist, or offensive in an email is actionable. Email is discoverable in most jurisdictions and can expose your company to litigation. A person sending such emails can be subject to discipline and even dismissal. If you're concerned that the email contains any such objectionable content, talk to your boss or human resources for further advice, or your legal representative if you don't wish to discuss it with the workplace.

Things You'll Need

  • Email
  • Place to go for a break

Sources and Citations

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