Monday, July 30, 2012


Email Battles

Someone at work sends you an email that you aren’t quite sure how to interpret.  Maybe the phrasing is ambiguous, maybe it uses a term with different meanings, or maybe there just isn’t enough context to decide what’s being said.  It seems weirdly hostile, but you don’t know why there would be hostility.  What do you do?

You could ignore it, of course.  But sometimes that isn’t an option, whether because of a deadline, high stakes, or just the sheer oddness of the message.

You could reply in kind, and thereby set in motion a chain reaction of misunderstandings that’s virtually guaranteed to bring out the worst in everybody.  Imagine a snippier version of “Three’s Company,” in which misinterpretations pile onto each other until the entire edifice collapses in a pile of hurt feelings.

You could assume the worst, and gird for battle.  Depending on locale and temperament, maybe you rally the troops while you’re at it.  Why settle for peace when there’s a bracing fight to be had?

Or you could try to actually solve the problem.  The first step in doing that, assuming that the workplace isn’t entirely nuts, is to switch venues.  Talk to the person, in person.  Ask about the message, and the intended meaning.  Get away from email, and have an actual conversation.  (In a pinch, even a phone call is better than nothing, but face-to-face is the best by far.)

I suspect that academics may be particularly susceptible to email battles, given their hyperliteracy.  They’re relatively good at writing -- make obligatory “jargon” joke here -- and often quick to take umbrage at perceived slights.  (Given that status, rather than money, is often the coin of the realm, slights hurt more.)  Email battles allow for the attempt at the perfect zinger, and it’s easier to be really nasty when you aren’t actually looking the person in the eye.

Which is why you need to look the person in the eye.

It’s harder to demonize the flesh-and-blood human being right in front of you.  And it’s much easier to convey nuances when body language and facial expressions are there to color the words.  Sometimes a hesitation or a sidelong glance can tell you far more than the words that follow it.  

Even interruptions can help.  When someone starts a chain of “this, and then this, and then THIS!!!,” it can be helpful to ask how he got from step one to step two.  Frequently, what looks obvious from one angle is revealed to be illusory when some new facts are shared.  “You denied my travel request, but approved hers!  You’re obviously biased!”  If you know, in that case, that one travel request had been written into an approved grant, and the other missed an application deadline, then suddenly the same fact pattern leads to a very different conclusion.  But without a discussion, that won’t come to light.

A few times over the last year, the email system has gone down for a day or more.  Oddly, those were some of my better days at work.  People actually talked to each other.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found other ways to stop the cycle of email battles?

Switching modes is the right approach. Always. If the email battle is during a weekend, holiday, or other stretch when people are not likely to see each other face-to-face, you can always say something like, "Let's hold off on further discussion until we talk to each other in person."
What you describe is, of course, the reason on-line interaction is superior to face-2-face interaction when it comes to learning.


The only solution is what you describe: If a re-re-reply seems in order, send a request for a meeting instead.

That goes double if you are from the sort of school where print communications are very abrupt and fact oriented, as they often are in science. Along the way, I learned to try to read any e-mail from the other's perspective, twice, before sending it.
Best advice I ever got on the tenure track: Only respond to emails that ask direct questions. And only respond to the questions that are directly asked.
Back when I was working at Large Telecommunications Company, there were a lot of e-mail flame wars caused by the inappropriate use of Carbon Copy.

It would start off by someone sending out an e-mail reminder of a meeting or a party, supposedly just to the few people who were attending it, but inadvertently they carbon copied the entire organization. Then someone would angrily respond, asking why they were getting this message, but they inadvertently carbon-copied the whole organization as well. Pretty soon, everyone's e-mail inbox was full of flames.

One thing I really dislike is management e-mails full of self-serving fluff, only to find the bad news at the very bottom. Recently, here at Proprietary Art School, there was an e-mail from Corporate that started off saying how important we employees were to the overall mission of the school, that we were a vital component of the effort to achieve student success, etc, etc. Then at the very bottom, the e-mail said that there would be no merit raises this year.
I have a two email rule for everything. If it takes more than that, I'm calling you or stopping by your office. Not only does it cut down on the emails in my inbox but it has solved problems much faster. And people are starting to adopt this practice that work with me.
One of the best email civility rules that I ever heard is:

All emails containing the word, "frankly", must be immediately deleted.

This rule has saved me on at least two different occasions.
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I can't say how many flamewars I avoided by typing my angry response and saving in a draft to reexamine at the end of the day.

Usually, I simply discard it.
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