I am a member of a programmers' society email group.

I recently sent a member a personal, private email regarding their behaviour in the forum. I didn't want to reduce the standing of the person publicly.

That person's response was to quote my personal message and reply to the group in public. I felt a lack of consideration for my privacy.

In their public reply they said:

If you don't want everyone to see it, you probably shouldn't be sending it.

It seems to be not uncommon to "force replies on-list" for this particular group.

  • I didn't think at the time to mention why I was replying off-list.
  • There is no rule to make things known to everyone.

It's the first time I've come across such a behaviour pattern considered "the way things are done".

What are the advantages and disadvantages of public replies to private messages in terms of building a friendly society? Is this a common practice?

  • Is what a common practice? Making private emails public?
    – NVZ
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 12:43
  • 1
    Is it a rule in your forum to make things known to everyone? Or is it that that particular user was intentionally being rude about it to you?
    – NVZ
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 12:45
  • 2
    Just fyi: there's also a dedicated Community Building SE. :)
    – NVZ
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 12:55
  • Did your message include the reason why you were sending it off-list?
    – Em C
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 14:10
  • 1
    You say you're a member... are you in a position of authority where it makes sense for you to check their behavior? Can we get some more info on your respective roles in this email group? Also, was the content they revealed something other than your private words? Did you relate something that you generally didn't want the others to know?
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 15:17

3 Answers 3


I think it depends on the user and whether they agree with what you were telling them. We actually allow this on Stack Exchange as part of the limited messaging system.

Moderators send private "Mod Messages" to users - only users with diamonds can do so - and the user can reply in a similar private (to all site mods and CMs) message or, on occasion, they will decide to "air their grievances" in a public meta discussion, often quoting the Mod Message... which is fine.

One of the things that we always encourage from moderators is to be thoughtful in how they word messages for this very reason. If the person who feels like they're being asked to change their behavior doesn't like the way they were asked, they may make it public. As such, it's in your own best interest to put your best foot forward.

So, my advice to you is the same. If you feel the need to correct the behavior of someone in your email group - especially if you're not a "leader" or "moderator" of some sort or if the user is longer-standing than you - be absolutely certain that you address them politely and explain why they should toe the line and follow your request. If the email group has rules about what they're doing, cite them and link to any helpful guides.

Don't make personal remarks, don't say anything you'd be concerned about being revealed. You can always say "I'd prefer this stay between us" but you can't expect that - and depending on their personality, it may make them even more likely to reveal the contents of the email.

So, in that sense, I agree with the quote in your question.

If you don't want everyone to see it, you probably shouldn't be sending it.

Remember, you have no way to prevent them from sharing the email you sent. It's in your own best interest to restrict what you say, particularly when you're trying to change someone else's behavior.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of public replies to private messages in terms of building a friendly society? Is this a common practice?

The main advantage and disadvantage is that you get feedback from the entire group. This depends on the way both sides of the message are conveyed and the people who read the "outed" message.

If you follow my advice and make reasonable requests that are generally supported by the other people on the email group, you're likely to get a response supporting your request. If the opposite is the case, then you're probably going to get some negative response to your email.

Similarly, if their email is reasonable as is yours, you may start an honest debate which will lead to an interesting discussion of the situation and possibly some "decisions" about the appropriate way to act in a situation.

If their email is a rant, complaining about your overreach and slandering you when you've made a reasonable request, you're likely to be supported and their behavior condemned.

A secondary consideration is that this often depends on the relative experience level or participation level of the person on each side. If you're brand new and they're established, a rant on their side is more likely to be accepted, while if the situations were reversed or if you have the same standing, it may not.

You may also have to be concerned with a partial conveyance of the message you sent. It's not uncommon for someone trying to make their own point to pick and choose what they share, so it may require you to respond publicly to explain more completely... but don't be reactive or defensive. Respond after thinking about what they've said

This is what happens on Stack Exchange all the time. Rants get voted down and (occasionally) answered reasonably, though occasionally they're deleted entirely. Reasonable requests for discussion lead to discussion.


This is a tricky issue on how to build a good group. Keeping everything in a public forum and having no private messages can be a nice way of building a respectful society if it is carried out properly:


  • Fewer personal conflicts, everyone knows about the relationships within the group.
  • Conflicts can be seen and possibly solved by members outside of the debate.
  • Creating a group ethic or code of conduct so there is less rudeness between members.


  • People may have problems but choose to remain silent as they don't want to make it public so the conflict doesn't really get solved.
  • It can be used to shame other members publicly about their conduct.
  • It doesn't respect people's privacy, not every conversation needs to be made public.

Unfortunately not everyone will always do that and bitter people may use it to their advantage like I mentioned by shaming other members or people may just choose not to discuss their problems.

It depends on the people at the end of the day...

  • "Keeping everything in a public forum and having no private messages" seems like what SE does...
    – Vylix
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 15:01

On a purely theoretical note an advantage is, with all things public, the group may operate under complete transparency, where nothing is hidden, and "all the cards are out on the table".

On a more practical note, transparency winds up showing both the best and worst of human interaction. People will disagree, and may disagree vehemently, passionately, belligerently, etc.

However, if all responses are public, and this is known by all, then maybe (but only maybe) responses will be more civil.

Answer is above. Editorializing is below.

If I am off, here, let me know (and I'll chop out this part of my answer), but I tried to put myself into your shoes and think of reasons why one would attempt reaching out individually to a member of the group.

Because it appears to have become a problem after doing so, I'm going to make the assumption it was somewhere in the "Dude! That wasn't cool!" category of emails.

You had, I fully expect, noble intent. Your goal was to help someone aware of a potentially or overtly offensive behavior, let us say.

They had, I piece together from the clues, a negative response to this that they responded to the group with. Their perception, I assume, was not that you were trying to help them.

Intent, as it turns out, doesn't really seem to matter, which seems to fly in the face of what many of us have been taught, which is "It is the thought that counts."

Unfortunately, you have learned (or re-learned) the potentially costly lesson: emails, forum posts, IMs are zero cost to replicate and infinitely replicated easily. They can also have long term impact on the rest of your life, reputation, etc.

Unless you know an individual well, you may wish to reconsider sending a "Dude! That's Not Cool!" email. As often as not, such an email will be used as a rope to hang you.

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