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.


  1. I wonder if Steve Martin still sends out his pro forma to those asking him when he's going to be funny again?

  2. I recently bore witness to Mark Ellen’s Jedi-like powers of persuasion, standing within earshot as he politely, but firmly diffused a very unpleasant situation at a gig.

    I've frittered away 16 years of my life on internet message boards. There's a certain type of very augmentative person that frequents these places, who you cannot debate or discuss anything with. These characters are adept at pushing buttons. They say things that turn ordinarily level-headed people into frothing opponents for them to dominate.

    By responding to them, you shift the balance of power in their favour. The best thing to do is to walk away and leave them ranting into empty air, rather like the man I occasionally see arguing with his reflection in the plate glass windows of Southend bus station.

  3. A precursor to this is the 'Yomber Principle', originating in HL Mencken's standard response to a complainant:

    'Sir/Madam, you may be right'.

  4. The man shouting in the bus station, was it Mark E Smith?

  5. Interesting article here about a Sports writer tracking down his online troll and how they react (and also about the absence of civility online)

  6. That's very interesting, elhombremalo. It's interesting the way some people feel that the only way they can get listened to in a debate is to adopt a tone of indignation - very extreme in the cases quoted in your link.

    I find I block out indignation wherever I come across it nowadays. On the web, on the radio, in the newspapers. I'm much more likely to be persuaded by a reasoned tone and an account of somebody's personal experience.