You should avoid:
Scolding mixed with either humor or praise or cheerfulness. Example: The letter that starts out "Happy Birthday!" but works its way into taking a corrective tone, as in "I'm so disappointed in your choice of career" or "You could dress better" or "You know, I say this with love, so don't take it the wrong way, but people would like you better if you'd ____." At birthdays and holidays, corrections are inappropriate (except of course corrections for abusiveness so bad that it (not you, but it) can't wait and/or so bad that it will soon hurt other people if not stopped). Also, in letters of correction, added compliments may feel necessary to the writer ("to soften the blow," as some people say), but these "cushioning compliments" always sound insincere to the reader. Readers often feel that the compliment was stuck on only to trick them into reading the whole insulting letter. Beware the stuck-on compliment: It can make you look untrustworthy and two-faced, like someone who habitually says praising things even while thinking awful ones.
(Next: How Recipients React.)
Copyright © 2003 J. E. Brown all rights reserved.