Who do you think you are?

There are some weeks when annoying little comments are like water off a duck’s back. You glide through life with a smile and shrug off every care in the world.

Then there are those other weeks. Those other weeks are when the slightest negative remark can send you into a tailspin of self-critical navel-gazing.

Then there are ones like the week I’m in right now. You read the comments, you know they’re not personal but still it grates.

Today it grates.

When you work for yourself you know you’ll have weeks when a usually lovely client signs off an email without really reading it back and it makes you a bit confused, a bit like your work isn’t really appreciated. It isn’t personal, it’s just because, much like yourself, they’ve got a to-do list as long as the queue for the bar at a Coldplay gig. Let he who is without email sin cast the first stone.

They’re never really a problem because you have a relationship. You have enough empathy with each other’s situation to know when a tone needs to be listened to and when it needs to be ignored.

I’m not talking about those comments. I’m talking about the ones from people that don’t have a relationship with you.

When the little ping comes into your inbox and it’s from a prospective client and their tone is all off it is profoundly disappointing. It’s the first time they’re getting in touch with you, often the first time you’re being introduced to their brand and it’s all a bit aggressive. Admittedly, these people who get in touch with me are looking for a writer so it stands to reason that expressing themselves honestly and accurately via the written word is probably not their strong suit. But there are ways of going about it that don’t make you sound like a arrogant buffoon.

This week I had a message from someone looking for a copywriter. First they wanted one thing. Not a problem, I can do that. Here are my prices. Silence. OK, I don’t think I want that thing, they respond. I want this. Not a problem, I reply. This is what that might look like and here are my prices. Silence. More silence. Yet more silence. The ball is, I assert, in their court. Like a sleep-deprived toddler they return, angry I haven’t accepted to do the (much bigger) revised job for the original price. I’m really sorry, I reply, that isn’t how it works. On reflection, I say to them, they should find another copywriter.

After several years of hard slog I’m able to a) spot timewasters and b) turn down business that I don’t want to get involved in. I am completely aware how fortunate a position that is (when you are starting out that is definitely something to put on your goals list, by the way).

It leaves a sour taste because I don’t like having anything negative surrounding my business. But it made me think about how that person is communicating their own business. If that’s how they talk to every supplier it isn’t going to last very long. If they permanently come across as being a little full of themselves, unable to see themselves as part of a free-flowing economy and quite happy to treat suppliers like underpaid staff then they can’t be that great a person to be around. Their pool of contacts is going to get smaller and smaller until the only people they have around them care equally little about their professional brand and are happy to be in a destructive working relationship.

About an hour after that final email I read a Facebook post. It was snarly, nasty, condescending and patronising. And it made me think of that prospective client. I’m sure the person who wrote the post thought they were being funny but it just didn’t come across that way. It was someone I thought I kind of knew. Now I think I know a bit more about them and none of it is good. Or perhaps I projected my own frustration onto it.

That’s the thing with digital communication, whether it’s email or social media or a text, we don’t know what kind of mood the person on the receiving end is in. What you think is witty and erudite might come across as bullying and arrogant. We can’t wrap ourselves in cotton wool and be oversensitive but we have to take a step back occasionally and think about what we’re writing and how it might affect the person who’s reading it. No one lives in a vacuum.

Perhaps that prospective client is a really nice guy. Perhaps he’s not. But he wrote an email without really thinking about it and it damaged his brand. Similarly the person who wrote that Facebook post has probably alienated a few people today. When the only relationship you have is a digital one, you have to be extra careful. It’s harder to laugh it off when there’s only words infront of you.

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