A Lesson in Censorship (with a little censure)

Censorship is often seen as a bad thing, but there are times when it not only isn’t bad, but necessary. I recently sent a text to our reconstruction contractor and uncharacteristically stated in writing that something in our house looked “amateurish”. Not to excuse my choice of wording, but that was at the end of a string of detail quality points I was making and I was frustrated. The contractor forwarded that text and picture to his subcontractor, prefacing with a caveat, “Don’t take this personally. Jim can be blunt, but he doesn’t really mean amateurish.”

Yes, I used that term. As it turned out, there was a valid reason for what was done and my concern, while equally valid, was placated. Still, the subcontractor did take it personally, and that affected a separate, larger issue.

I should have known better, having had a couple of experiences some 17 years ago that helped guide my subsequent professional correspondence. On one part of a huge project, changes were mounting and I got in hot water with a division director over referring to those changes as “gold plating”. My Commanding Officer and I met with the director on site to soothe the anger and discuss the scope of the changes. Afterward, he and I took a walk and he said, “Jim, the lesson here is you should consider your audience and be careful what you say.”

“But, sir, you were the one who said they needed to stop gold plating the project!”

Pause. “Okay. If I did, then you should protect your boss and not pass on those words.”

Right. Noted for future reference.

A year or so later, in a different command, I got an email from the Assistant Public Works Officer (APWO): “Jim, I need you to [do something] to get the XO [Executive Officer] off my back.” Several back and forth emails followed to clarify the direction and update status. Finally, I sent a reply on the same string: “Done.”

The APWO found me the next day and sheepishly passed on the wisdom of being careful with emails and replies. He had taken my “Done.” and forwarded it on to the XO, not thinking that deep down in the email trail was that, “get the XO off my back.”


Because of my sensitivity to professional correspondence, I usually edit things that are forwarded and I mistakenly assume that others do as well. Or, I might blind copy someone to keep him in the loop yet not reveal to the original recipient that someone else knows of the conversation (sensitive conversations…no, but contentious, technical ones…maybe). And when the BCC replies to the string, it is sometimes embarrassing when the second party becomes aware that a third party is involved.

Now, in the case of the reconstruction, my word choice was unkind. I should have censored my text  so that I wouldn’t have to censure myself. Now, I still am less inclined to beg forgiveness than question the general contractor…he did think of the impact of my words and prefaced his conveyance of the voiced concern with a “you shouldn’t worry about the specific words”. If he thought there was going to be a problem and that deleting that sentence wouldn’t change the scope of my point, then why would he not edit before sending?

Emails, texts take the place of hand written letters of the past and yet do not differ in that when sent, they’re non-retractable. Take care in your words.

And be kind.


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