“It is much easier to be critical than to be correct.” – Benjamin Disraeli (speech, January 24, 1860)

This is not the first time I’ve talked about e-mail etiquette (see Message #180, “E-Mail and Return Buttons”), so if you have already heard this little speech, please forgive me. I’m inclined to bring it up again because I witnessed a messy situation just today when a memo, sent in confidence, was either inadvertently or purposely routed back to the “wrong” person.

What resulted was a mix of bad feelings, confusion, and a derailed relationship that will take some mending. The damage caused goes beyond the two people directly involved.

What is especially unfortunate is that the wording of the memo was almost certainly an exaggeration. It didn’t represent the truth, though it was taken as such.

We sometimes exaggerate for impact, but usually when it is “safe.” And that brings us to today’s subject: what is safe and what is not in e-mail memos.

The problem: If you write something negative about someone, there is a better than 50% chance that it will find its way to him. Since the statement is written, it (a) cannot be denied, (b) cannot be erased, (c) is harder to explain away, and (d) is likely to seem harsher than it was meant to be.

General principle to fall back on: Praise in public, criticize in private.

Solution: Write your memos as if they were public announcements. Never write anything about someone that you wouldn’t say to him personally. Actually, the test is even more severe than that: Never write anything about someone that you wouldn’t say about him in public.

Needless to say, such an approach will have a “chilling effect” on frankness. That is a price to pay, but it is not, in my view, too heavy a price. It means you must be very careful about your criticisms, that you must not exaggerate them, that you must put them in context, that you must make them specific, and that you can’t be sarcastic or snide.

If you practice this careful public criticism, you will get good at it and it won’t seem as restrictive as it does now. It will make you a better, more precise, and fairer critic. And that’s not so terrible. Yes, you’ll work harder. Yes, you’ll have to think longer before you write. But you will feel wiser, more powerful, and in control.

The battle isn’t over even after you’ve learned to control what YOU say. You have to be vigilant to keep your correspondents’ comments confidential.

Promise yourself this: Starting today, you will assume that anything you write about anybody will eventually be read by him or her. So frame your comments accordingly. If at all possible, say what needs to be said directly to that person. ‘If you can’t, do it via a personal phone call (making sure you are not being taped or broadcast). And to avoid spreading slander, make it a habit to double-check the “recipient” box before you forward or copy any e-mail message.