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?