Wednesday, July 30, 2008



Last week I saw another iteration of something I still don't really understand. People who are perfectly civil in person are often capable of firing off incredibly nasty and hateful emails. Sometimes they'll do that with cc's all the way up the chain, as a way of spreading the manure over the most ground with the least effort. Yet, when confronted, they're surprised that anybody would take offense, and they revert to their perfectly civil selves.

It's mystifying.

The same happens in the blogosphere, of course, but anonymity may explain some of that. I'm likelier to feel free to write horrible things if I think they can't be traced back to me. (I don't – or at least I don't think I do – but that's a conscious choice.)

On the campus email system, though, there's no anonymity. In fact, the folks who fire off the poison-pen (poison keyboard?) messages usually sign them.

In my early, naïve days of deaning, I used to try to answer the bills-of-particulars in great detail. Over the years, though, I've learned that rebuttals don't work. They just invite escalation.

I've developed a protocol that usually works, though your mileage may vary:

1.Read the whole hateful thing at least three times, to try to sort through the invective to the actual substance, if any.
2.Let at least two hours pass. If circumstances allow, make it a day. This is to allow me to put the initial emotional response behind me.
3.Respond verbally – either on the phone or, preferably, in person – and do it with unemotional questions. Don't – ever – respond in kind.

Some people seem to use ritualistic invective as a sort of throat-clearing; it's just something they have to do before writing. “This is typical of the administration, always putting money before the good of the students.” Translated, that's roughly “ahem.” Yet many of those same people wouldn't dream of saying such things in person. Some of that may be timidity, but some of it, I think, is because they suspect at some level that it simply isn't true.

Back in my days of teaching freshman composition, I used to claim that one of the advantages of writing as a medium was that it allowed for more thoughtful expression than speech, since you could edit and revise until you got it where you wanted it. I still believe that, but I'm starting to believe the opposite, as well. Speech requires acknowledging the human reality of your interlocutor, which has a way of tamping down the really bizarre accusations. But when you're writing, it's possible to get all wrapped up in your own issues, without anyone's horrified expression or body language serving as a corrective. You can go much farther off the deep end without even realizing it.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely reports a study from a major California university (I don't remember which one) in which male undergraduates were queried about which sexual behaviors they would be willing to engage in. They were surveyed once in a relatively cool emotional state, and once while, um, let's go with 'actively' viewing pornography. Unsurprisingly, the answers rendered in the heat of the moment were much more venturesome than those recollected in tranquility.

I think there's something similar at work with the poison keyboard emails. They're (presumably) composed in solitude, in an emotional state, and without any kind of external reality intruding. The authors get themselves all worked up about (whatever), and go out on rhetorical limbs that they otherwise wouldn't. I've actually had cases in which I've quoted people's emails back to them, and they've been visibly shocked at the sound of what they've written, almost as if they'd been written by someone else. Sometimes they're even visibly embarrassed, as if they'd been caught.

I don't know if there's an effective way to discourage the poison keyboard attacks. I don't want to be a censor, but it's also true that starting a message with “dear jackass” doesn't do much for the sender's credibility. My preference, obviously, is to have sufficiently open dialogue in the first place that people don't feel the need to go off, well, half-cocked. Sometimes that works, but it takes both time and a willingness to meet halfway.

Wise and worldly readers – is there a good explanation for the exponentially-higher level of personal attack and ill will in emails than in person?

If you find the answer to that, let me know. I'm on the receiving end of far too many of these. In my case, I think I represent the "those tech people who speak in acronyms and provide crappy service." In fact, I just had this conversation with my boss about someone who had gone off about our new email system. We discussed whether to meet with the person face-to-face or construct a well-worded email. We decided face-to-face. I said I wanted the person to recognize that there are people behind the decisions and the work it took to implement the decisions, not some anonymous machine.

I have written back to people, copying my own chain of command, and said, "Maybe next time you're frustrated, you'll take a moment to think before you hit the send button."

Unfortunately, I also know people who are mean in person and email. I guess they're just mad at the world.
I don't know how much insight I can offer, but at least I can 'fess up to being one of the jerks you describe, dean dad. I write a nasty email, have an extensive cc file, and rarely stop to consider the consequences (people's anger, my own embarrassment) before hitting 'send.'

I guess I'm armored by my own self-righteousness, spurred by my taste for polemics, agitated again and again by the cliches, bromides, and blather our administrators soak their keyboards in.

Is it possible that a lot of other faculty have unresolved issues with authority figures, as the phrase goes? Or am I the only one?
Here, for example, is a production I just barely managed to restrain myself from sending this morning in response to a harmless but dumb request from a senior administrator to all faculty and staff at WUNCC for five adjectives that the school could use to help make ourselves more prominent in the public's mind:

With all our mission statements, vision statements, accreditation reports, presidential speeches, administrative pep talks, and advertising copy, it's hard to believe that the school needs yet five more adjectives to lead it out of its status as the best-kept secret in WayUpNorth.

Surely, it isn't rocket surgery to find the words that sing our praises to the world! We are dynamic! We are caring! We are challenging! We are innovative! We are entrepreneurial!

Perhaps a glimpse of the darker side of WUNCC would better cement us in the state's consciousness. We are self-doubting! We are timid! We are defensive! We are insecure! We are vague!

Doomed to be ever on the receiving end of such missives, I can only dream longingly for a policy where all emails must be read aloud by the sender during all-employee meetings.

If we prohibit restroom breaks while reading, It would have the added benefit of convincing some that "War and Peace" is not the correct gauge for measuring the length of individual messages.
While people are working on this one, perhaps you can also explain to me why so many folks don't seem to understand the proper time to use "reply" and "reply to all."

If I mention that Professor X also needs this information and cc her, when you reply, wouldn't it make sense to "reply to all" so that I don't have to forward the answer to X?

And do you really need to hit "reply to all" on the email to a dozen people from the dean's assistant asking for available times for a meeting?

We could play email etiquette bitching all day long...
hmm....I've written messages that I'm sure were interpreted this way. I'd like to think I don't deal in personal attack but I have on several occasions laid out what I think are the problems with a given situation, with the implication that the recipient is somewhat responsible. I couldn't speak for faculty but as a grad student, it's been all about escalation. A strongly worded email seems to be the only way I can get anybody's attention.

Believe me, I tried other avenues before I resorted to this tactic. I had meetings where I was patted on the head and told to calm down and sent on my way, my initial complaint unresolved. I sent polite emails that never received replies. I begged, I pleaded. I left messages that weren't returned.

Then, I write a long email outlining the problems I see in the department and how they play out in my current situation and presto. I've got a meeting with the responsible parties and a resolution to my problem. That's pretty powerful positive reinforcement for the pointed email.

Then again, I've always written these with a specific problem that I had in particular, for which I was seeking a solution. Not as a general complaint about the direction of the institution. So maybe it's different. Still...maybe feeling like its the only way to get past the stonewall contributes, here.
Dear wayupnorth,

There's a way to configure Microsoft Outlook to delay sending your e-mail, so if you decide after hitting "send" that you didn't want to, you CAN stop it...
Dear Sherman Dorn:

I'd hate to subcontract my self-control and judgment to MS....

Or, rather: 'That's a typical MS/PC statement, putting the good of megacorporations ahead of the state of the soul of end-users!'
I feel your pain, having been both the recipient and (occasionally, in my younger, wilder days) the author of such missives.

I think it's a combination of 2 related factors that are specific to the email medium:

(a) As email has become the preferred method for replacing not only text memos but, increasingly, telephone or voicemail messaging, a *whole lot more* people are using this method--including a lot of people not previously called-upon to write a lot. If you've written a lot, you are somewhat more likely to have received "read it aloud to make sure it captures your meaning accurately" training; someone who has not, prior to the mail era, written a lot is much less likely to have that habit--and so doesn't realize how vituperative text can sound when spoken;

(b) Of course, there is email's immediacy: a hard-copy blast had to be written, printed, and then sent via snail or internal mail--which provided much more opportunity for reconsideration. "Send" doesn't provide much pause.
Sorry: blogger anonymized me: I'm the author of #9 ("I feel your pain...") above.
I would post the emails to

That's just me:)
I try to follow DD's response and let time pass before replying. Put another way, I never let Evil B&*^ GunPowderPlot reply. She's the first to want to reply, but that never turns out well. After a day or so, Dr. GPP can reasonably craft an answer--or delete.

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned students. Am I the only one who gets those emails from students? It used to be just in my online classes, but now, increasingly, I get them from my f2f students as well.

My policy is to reply simply, "thanks for your input."
As one writer put it, it's not just members of the administration that are targets of such emails.

I think DD's solution to simply wait a while is key. I was fired from an awful technical writing job once because I sent what I thought was a fairly thoughtful email to my superiors. Unfortunately, I went way up the chain--to the client--and my in-house bosses told me to hit the road.

To this day I try to take a few deep breaths and consider how someone else might take my missive. It's very hard to do irony/sarcasm via email; tone gets lost.

Another reason why people will not say in person what they'll say over the computer is that they're afraid of getting their heads bashed.
Perhaps it's partly that, in writing, the invective gets a flow going, whereas in speech there are inevitably interruptions and environmental breakers.
It seems that CJS remembers when there were more memos than e-mail, or has worked at a place where the culture was still more memos than e-mail. Your post, DD, reminded me of the end of Jane Smiley's Moo, and the memos that go back and forth, especially at the end of a semester or a year. E-mail has largely supplanted the memo as the weapon of choice, but the rhythm has stayed the same. Forwarded (cc'd and reply to all) e-mails often seem to be used as a weapon or a way of not being alone. The sharing of a private (nasty) e-mail to reveal the person/ the issue for what it is (e.g. "look what the dean said to me !") has been particularly prevalent at certain places I've been.
If someone is going to send a passive aggressive note, the least they could do is add a legal disclaimer, ... you know, the 10 lines you find at the bottom of every company sourced e-mail, saying "I never wrote any of this, I'm not responsible for it if I did, and if you tell anyone what I wrote I'll sue you".
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