Have you ever been a little frustrated with a co-worker and wrote an email to express your concerns; and instead of reading your calm, yet concerned tone, the co-worker read a little more attitude than you intended and snapped of an even more explosive email with three other co-workers and two supervisors CC’d?

Your next move played a pivotal part in the escalation of the conflict and said more about your character than any email could ever describe.

The Pivotal Moment

Did you:

A) Snap off an even more heated email, with everyone in the company CC’d including the CEO?

B) Go into damage-control mode by crafting a very detailed email in a level-headed, yet firm tone explaining the conflict to everyone attached to the email chain.

C) Take a lunch break to cool off and resolve the issue by picking up a phone.

Technology and Civility

Here are two of my major frustrations with the onset of technologies like email, text messaging, and Facebooking:

1) Lack of Non-Verbal Communcation

2) Lack of inhibiting factors

The Downfall of Non-Verbal Communication

If you’ve ever taken a communications class, one of the first principles you were taught is that (depending on the source) 70-95% of communication is non-verbal. You can literally say the same sentence an infinite number of ways and communicate an infinite number of meanings.

Here’s an example from an article about how your brain interprets what your ears hear at The National Institutes of Health website:

Try changing the emphasis on a different word and see how it changes the meaning of this sentence:

The blue fish is too big for that tank. (Meaning: The blue fish is too big, but fish of other colors are the appropriate size.)

The blue fish is too big for that tank. (Meaning: The blue fish is too big, but other blue creatures are the appropriate size.)

The blue fish is too big for that tank. (Meaning: The blue fish is too big for that tank but may be the appropriate size for some other tank.)

Add voice tone, facial expressions, hand motions, eye contact, etc. and you can see how easy it is to make mistakes in communication. It’s amazing that we can even communicate at all.

Digital Emotions

That’s why I try to make all important or emotional communications by voice; preferably in person, but at least over the phone.

Think about a simple message such as: “Are you going to get that project done, or are you really busy?” Let’s say you were in a hurry and you decided to send it in a text-message. You sent it with a smile, in a caring tone, as if to offer help.

But think of all the ways that message could be interpreted. The person who reads it might imagine you to be crossing your arms with a snarky tone. They might imagine a smirk on your face as if to put you down. They might see you rolling your eyes in a condescending way.

You have no way of controlling how your message is interpreted, because you are not there to add your non-verbals and view the reaction.

Feedback Corrections

When you’re face-to-face with someone, you have the luxury of instant feedback in order to make course-corrections. If something didn’t come out as you intended, or if someone gets offended, you can instantly backtrack, or clarify your position.

With electronic communication, if your recipient is offended, they might stew on on it or bring other people into the conversation before you have a chance to react.

Lack of Inhibitions

People are simply more civil to each other face to face. If someone cuts you off with a grocery cart you’d probably bite your tongue and force a smile; but when you get home you might scream at the wall to release your frustration. The potential consequences of a conflict inhibited you from screaming at the person face-to-face.

Behind your computer screen at home, the consequences of offending someone else seem far away, almost non-existent. It’s much easier to tell someone “what you really think” in the heat of the moment, even if you’ll regret it later.

It doesn’t take any guts to confront someone from behind your computer. This is what cowards do, they hide behind someone or something else and yell insults.

Grow a Pair

Today, it seems like everyone wants to use email and text messaging for their dirty work. Breaking up, firing someone, canceling a date… It drives me crazy. Do you realize how little toughness it takes to fire someone over email? Grow a pair. (Yes, this actually happened to someone I know.)

People want to hide behind the digital divide and lob missiles. They say things that they never would face to face. Toughen up. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you can’t say it in person, don’t say it at all.

The Last Time I Succumbed to Temptation

Early in my professional career I had a rocky relationship with a co-worker, let’s call her Sally. Sally had been around the job awhile and held the same position that I held. We reported to the same person; but, for one reason or another, she thought that it was their business to tell me what I could and could not do at work.

About twice a week, I would get a very detailed email from her listing what I had done wrong. I held my tongue every time it happened because I wasn’t going to lower myself to this sort of argument.

I simply ignored her and continued on with my day. My supervisors were very happy with my work and I didn’t see the problem.

One day, her frustration with me must have hit critical mass. Sally gathered all the emails she had ever sent me, pasted them into one huge email, added a few more things and emailed it. Not only did she send it to me, but to our boss, our boss’ boss, and about 5 other people who had nothing to do with anything.

My Test

I promptly drafted up the most scathing email I could write, CC’ing everyone I could think of who would support me, and sat staring at the “send” button. The email draft explained how she constantly rode me (when it wasn’t her place); furthermore, it went on to criticize everything else about her I could think of at the time.

I knew I shouldn’t send it, but in a moment of weakness I clicked…

I immediately felt remorse, but there was no turning back. The deed had been done. If I had just left it where it was; spoke to my supervisor and Sally in a civil way, she would have looked like the idiot. Instead, I went down into the mud where she lived.

The email did what it was intended to do. She had a sit-down with the supervisor and stopped the behavior, but it wasn’t worth the unintended consequences. The tension in the office made working together a problem and I was moved to a different department. I never worked it out with her and I regret it to this day.

The CC is the New Tattle-Tale

CCing your boss is really the same as telling your mom on someone. Come on. Are we still in Kindergarten?

Count to Five

Before you click “send”, force yourself to do these five things:

1. Wait 24 Hours.

Things never seem as bad 24 hours later… The emotions of the moment cloud your judgement. You might even realize some fault.

2. Don’t Make it Personal

In business, emotions can get you in trouble. Think about what you want your results to be and stick to what will get you there. Don’t play he said/she said and possibly risk much more. Just solve the problem.

3. Talk to The Most Rational Person You Know

Immediately, call a trusted friend who can talk you off the ledge. Try to avoid emotional or irrational personality types. Call the most level-headed, non-emotional person you know for some advice. You’ll almost always find that there are much simpler ways to resolve your problem.

4. Check the Ego

It’s tough to conceive, but you might actually be wrong. If you are wrong, fighting back might just make it worse. Have the courage to accept fault where deserved and move towards solving the problem. Don’t make this about destroying the other person. Make it about a mutual solution.

5. Pick up a Phone

Have some integrity and pick up the phone. Stop the CC email madness and cut to the chase.

Your counterpart will probably be so shocked that they will drop their guard. At the very least, you will get their respect. Even if they hate you for it, they will respect you because you had the integrity and guts to face your problem head on.


(Featured photo by Caleb Best)