How to Respond to a Rude E-mail


A few weeks ago, I got a jaw droppingly rude e-mail from someone with whom I have been collaborating.  It took me completely by surprise, but when I showed it to my husband and a few friends, it seemed like receiving an occasional e-mail like this was a fairly universal experience.  In that vein, I thought these tips might be helpful:

Don’t reply immediately

Your first instinct, naturally, is to get defensive and give the person a piece of your mind.  Feel free to draft a message to this effect, but do not send it.  Rather, give yourself a day – or at least a few hours – to cool off.  This will prevent you from saying something you regret and allow you to re-approach the situation with a calm demeanor.

Be the bigger person

Even if the person is way out of line, when you start off your reply by thanking the person for contacting you and offering feedback, it often diffuses the tension and encourages the other party to back down.  It also preserves your reputation in the event that the e-mail should be forwarded to someone else.

Offer additional information or take the discussion offline

In your response, include a carefully constructed argument supporting your point of view – using external sources if necessary.  If it’s more of a personal issue, volunteer to get on the phone so that the two of you can address it and determine a productive way to move forward.

Don’t completely let them off the hook

If the person is being particularly unfair and cruel (calling you names, making wild accusations, etc.), be direct in expressing that this is not an appropriate way to behave.  For instance, you might say that in future communications, you would appreciate it if the two of you could keep your tone professional.

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  • Great information, it’s happened to me before too. Love your blog.

    Lukeither Willingham, CEO
    Lukeither Multimedia & Design

    • Thank you Lukeither! Glad your enjoying the content here. We’re always open to topic suggestions as well!

    • Alexandra Levit

      Thanks, Lukeither. By the way, I love your name.

  • BP1

    Hi Alexandra,
    Thanks for writing about this topic. I found it very insightful. I actually received a nasty and unprofessional email from a colleague about a month ago and was (and still am) scarred because it was in response to a purely informational question I asked. Unsure about how to react, I responded as if he was being sarcastic. So I sent a quick reply with a joke about his upcoming retirement, although in my mind it still served as a slight jab. That ended our conversation, but another colleague entered into the fray with more professional but equally time-wasting emails about workplace boundaries and responsibilities. I was fuming for the remainder of the day, and my wife suggested the next day I speak to the second colleague face to face. I did just that and was able to get a straight answer to my original question. This was obviously my first encounter with a rude email, and its certainly something I won’t be able to forget. I realize that I should have initially responded in a more professional manner, but my pride got in the way in refusing to be treated like a pushover. It is important not to add fuel to the fire, and to redirect the email discussion to a more productive purpose as quickly as possible.

    • Alexandra Levit

      Thanks for sharing your story, BP1, and being quick on the trigger happens to the best of us. It seems that both you and I are trying to treat these unpleasant experiences as an opportunity to learn, which means that we will be better off in the end.

  • The Outlaw Mom

    It can be really difficult to blow off an extremely rude e-mail, especially when it’s on a repeated basis and when you’re trying to negotiate a deal for your client with your obnoxious counterpart. But you’re very correct in advising that going tit-for-tat is not going to get you anywhere. As a lawyer, I’m constantly tempering my knee jerk reactions to condescending, rude opposing counsel to maintain a level of professionalism . . . despite my desire to respond in kind! I recently blogged about this issue ( in order to get it out of my system. Thanks for the post, Alexandra.

    The Outlaw Mom

    • Alexandra Levit

      Outlaw Mom- I can only imagine what rude e-mails must be like in the legal world. Thanks for sharing your insight and I’m glad you liked the post.

  • That happened to me couple of months ago, and yeah you are right: the first instinct was to reply at that moment and get in to the quarrel, but then after I cool of I managed to answer with dignity and end conversation with that person. 

  • That happened to me couple of months ago, and yeah you are right: the first instinct was to reply at that moment and get in to the quarrel, but then after I cool of I managed to answer with dignity and end conversation with that person. 

    • Anonymous

      @EAS:  The cooling off period is absolutely critical!  Thanks for reading!

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  • Alex, I was googling email response to rude emails and found you! Thank you, old friend.