Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 1, Issue 21;   May 23, 2001: Avoid Typing Under the Influence

Avoid Typing Under the Influence

by

When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. Accidental offense is inevitable, and email is especially likely to produce examples of this problem. What can we do as members of electronic communities when trouble erupts?

Like many of you, I subscribe to some private email discussion groups. One of mine is several years old, and includes lots of people who've been using email for about 25 years. Although they're sophisticated about email, they're struggling, as I write this, with a hot controversy. Some messages have been very personal and hurtful. How can this group, which is so experienced with email, get itself into such a fix? And what can we do when otherwise responsible people get caught up in heated email debate?

When we communicate, we can't control how other people interpret our communications. We send whatever we send, and people receive what they receive, and we can't guarantee congruence of sent to received. Neither sender nor receiver is wholly responsible. No amount of modifying one's tone, or volume, or topic can get around this completely.

A shouting match

Photo by 05com under CC 2.0 license

Email is especially vulnerable to this problem. We write it quickly and we read it quickly. Most of us are good readers (if we actually read the whole message) but, alas, most of us aren't such great writers. Accidents are inevitable.

Suggestions that people take more care might help a bit, but for problematic cases, I've never seen the take-more-care tactic work over the long term in email.

Here are three things you can do:

Avoid TUI (Typing Under the Influence)
Adrenaline is a dangerous drug. If an especially hurtful or maddening message gets your adrenaline pumping, leave the keyboard at once. Do not send email. Do not pass Go. Get up, wander around, go work out, or do something physical to work off the hormone. This is simple biology.
Recognize that some messages need no reply
You can't always tell
whether your correspondent
actually intended to hurt you
or was just out of control
Some messages are meant to hurt, and some are hurtful by accident. The trouble is that you can't always tell whether your correspondent actually intended to hurt you or was just out of control (TUI). Once you recognize this, you can decide not to reply to the more outrageous messages. Most of your colleagues have the good sense to recognize your silence as grace.
Adopt a "Take-It-Outside" norm
In the Wild West, people had fistfights and gunfights indoors. Or at least they did in the movies. We don't have to do that in email. In email, we can agree that if two people get going at each other, and if they can't avoid TUI, then someone will ask them to take it outside, where they can continue, or not, wherever they like. It's best to adopt this norm before trouble breaks out.

If you belong to an electronic community that can benefit from these suggestions, feel free to send them this article. They'll thank you for it. Go to top Top  Next issue: Taming the Time Card  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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See also Emotions at Work and Writing and Managing Email for more related articles.

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Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) speaks at a recent Senate hearingComing October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
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Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.

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