Sunday, June 26, 2016

Should I tell my emailing friend he's offensive?

For several years, D.R. has been on a friend's email routing list. Whenever the friend receives an email he finds amusing or provocative, he forwards it on to a dozen or so friends so they can share in the laughter. D.R., who receives the emails on his personal email account, rarely finds the emails, which are typically full of musings on aging or observations about the decay of society, funny or thought-provoking.

The friend rarely emails D.R. with anything other than a forwarded email, so D.R. has reached the point where, more often than not, he simply deletes any emails from the friend if he sees they are being forwarded to a group of recipients. Occasionally, if D.R. does read an email and it repeats a long-debunked myth about a particular celebrity or politician, he will respond to his friend with a link to the information (typically from or correcting the myth with words like, "Not true. See here," followed by the link.

But lately the friend's emails have taken on a disturbing tone. D.R. has noticed that some of the emails being forwarded could be construed as sexist, racist, or anti-Semitic. D.R. never thought of his friend as a racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic before, but the emails he is forwarding present him in this light to D.R.

D.R. doesn't believe debunking such emails will get to the real issue of how offensive and inappropriate he finds them. He can't imagine that his friend doesn't know that these particular emails are tinged with such hateful sentiment. He could choose to stop reading group emails from the friend entirely and just delete them as they arrive.

"But is that enough?" asks D.R. "Shouldn't I tell him how offensive I find these particular emails?"

If the emails offend D.R., simply deleting them is not enough. At the very least, he should ask his friend to take him off of his email routing list for these things he forwards. (Given that he doesn't find even the inoffensive ones interesting, he would have been wise to do this long ago.)

But if D.R. truly finds some of the messages to be offensive, the right thing would be to tell his friend how offensive he finds them and why.

D.R. is unlikely to change his friend's viewpoint if these emails reflect how he thinks about such things. But if no one says anything to the friend, he will simply continue to forward on such things, giving no thought to how they are being received.

D.R. might find that the friend doesn't pay as much attention to the type of things he forwards on as D.R. thinks he does. Some people too freely forward on, repost, or retweet stuff they haven't bothered to read closely. Pointing out the offensiveness gives D.R.'s friend a chance to think more carefully about what he chooses to forward on to others. It also gives him the opportunity to let the originator of such emails know how offensive they are.

But D.R.'s friend might be fully aware of the nature of his emails. Now he will know how offensive D.R. finds them and to take D.R. off of his email routing list, since D.R. wants nothing to do with the spread of such things. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 



Carol said...

I would email this "friend" and ask to be removed from the emails. I would also tell him why.

Anonymous said...

DR should get off the e-mail list if all are unwelcome.
How he does it depends on how much the friendship is worth.
Greenfield, Ma.

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