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Saturday, January 15, 2011

How to deal with stroppy correspondence

My colleague Mark Ellen has a talent which I particularly envy. He can write conciliatory replies to indignant correspondents. Most correspondents aren’t particularly indignant but the odd one seems incapable of a measured response, reaching for a tone of withering scorn when what would work best is honest puzzlement. Mark replies in the moderate tone such as a negotiator would use to talk down an armed hijacker. It’s so successful that they often end up apologising to him for the tone they adopted and offering to come round and do his ironing.

I can’t do it. My first instinct is to shoot back, particularly when, as is so often the case, people are not reacting to the words I wrote as much as the words they prefer to think I wrote. This seems to happen increasingly. People appear to want you to have said the thing for which they have a put-down standing by and they can’t pass up the opportunity. The temptation to shoot back and bury them in sarcasm is very powerful. I frequently compose emails which I don't send.

Maybe the solution is to do what Steve Martin did back in the 80s, which was to send a form reply to everyone who wrote in, whether favourable or not, asking them to “keep an extra bunk made up in case I get to YOUR TOWN HERE.” It's the kind of thing that people would treasure without knowing whether they had made their point or not. You can read it along with lots of other fascinating correspondence at Letters Of Note.