Evolving email is a series about putting yourself in the inbox of the recipient and getting more value out of the time you spend on the task of writing email.

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In his masterpiece How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie tells a fascinating story about Abraham Lincoln that probably isn’t in many school history textbooks. You won't read about it in Lincoln's Wikipedia entry either.

In the fall of 1842, some 19 years before he would become president of the United States, Lincoln found himself facing the very real possibility of death on a sandbar in the Mississippi River.

He had been challenged to a duel by James Shields, a “pugnacious politician” who was incensed after Lincoln publicly ridiculed him in a letter.

Fortunately for both men, the duel never happened. Their seconds managed to intervene and end the altercation before any blood was shed.

Carnegie notes that this “was the most lurid personal incident” in the life of Lincoln, a man who would later be proclaimed “the most perfect ruler of men that the world as ever seen” by his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton.

Though bullets never met flesh that autumn day in 1842, it’s likely that Lincoln learned the valuable lesson that when text is used as ammunition, the ricochet can wound the sender deeply. Sometimes fatally.

Later, during his presidency, Lincoln wrote another scathing letter, this time targeting his Union general during the Civil War. General George Meade had violated important orders from Lincoln and squandered the opportunity to corner the Confederate General Lee.

No duel ensued this time, however. Lincoln never sent the letter. It was found after his death.

Applying Lincoln’s life lessons to email

Clearly, the human urge to fire written words at others predates email. At least in the days before keyboards, we were forced to think a little more. Plus, we had to buy a stamp.

Today, however, an email can be received in anger and replied to before a cooler head can prevail. And the ricochet, if anything, zings back faster than ever.

An email argument is a duel that wounds both sides, every time. Think about it. Have you ever truly won an argument through email?

If you get a snarky-sounding email

First, wait. Whatever you do, don’t reply immediately. The angrier you are, the more time you should wait.

While you’re waiting, think. Are you misinterpreting what’s been said to you? How can you resolve this without firing back?

If you’re really convinced that the sender meant you harm, then apply another one of Carnegie’s timeless principles: you can never win an argument. Your mission should be to disarm. This takes will power, but it works. Personally, I love things that work.

Instead of angrily replying with counterpoints, point out what you agree on (if anything). And it takes even more willpower, but if all else fails, agree with the other person—even if you really don’t. Yeah, I said that correctly.

An argument can’t happen if both sides agree. But something more magical often happens too. When you agree with someone after they attack you, they often back down immediately. Many times they even reverse their position.

Whether it’s a family member or coworker, it’s in your best interests to get along. It's true from both a productive and a psychological standpoint. Getting along works.

A note on sarcasm

Whether it’s an email, message board, or any other textual medium, sarcasm often creates more harm than value.

Senders of sarcastic text assume it will be received as humor, not malice. Recipients of sarcastic text tend to assume it was sent in malice, not humor.

This is a problem with an obvious solution: Don’t use sarcasm.


The ease of sending email makes it very easy to fall into a temper trap (not the band, which is quite good by the way).

Keeping your email pistol holstered yields at least two valuable benefits:

  • You avoid the time and attention distractions of an email duel.
  • You earn the respect of others – making them more likely to help you later.

Conclusion: staying cool boosts productivity, health, and wealth.

If you have any stories about how you won or lost an email battle, let me know.