Tuesday, October 6, 2009

You Lie! Are we getting ruder? I blame email

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

Are we expressing our displeasure more openly these days? Certainly the Republicans are – though they are not the only ones. Personally, I think it all started with email.

The first email I ever received – sent via DOS – came from a perfectly lovely boss I had while I worked as a secretary at a local university. I was thrilled to have figured out how to send her a message while she was on the other side of the country. Imagine, I thought, she may get this note in just a few minutes!

She certainly did. And she wasted no time in responding: She wanted specific fonts for printing out her promotion packet. She didn’t care if the school didn’t have them. No excuses. Her message aggressively outlined in no uncertain terms that I was to do everything necessary to get them. With one email all her loveliness went right out the window.

We eventually sorted things out in person. And I know that it was her anxiety around the promotion that was talking and not her. But that scalding message splashed cold water all over my delight at using something new.

Recalling the many counterproductive emails I have both sent and received, I am reminded of a model that sat on my childhood desk. A caricature of a loud-mouthed person, the caption on its base said, “Engage brain before opening mouth.” Today that model would show a harried office worker hunched over a computer or Blackberry and say something like “Engage empathy before pressing send.”

The technology that makes such gaffes possible also makes it possible to retract them – but only if you are quick about it. For example, Google has added an “unsend” feature to Gmail. The new feature was announced last spring and according to the Web site, it “… can't pull back an email that's already gone; it just holds your message for five seconds so you have a chance to hit the panic button.”

Unfortunately, we often need more than five seconds to realize that we have launched an e-grenade.

And while we don’t always intend the hostile or angry tone our email conveys, other times we do. Why do we say things over email in ways that we wouldn’t in-person?

One reason is that email allows us to communicate our thoughts without interruption. The recipient cannot insert their reaction in real time. So even if you don’t intend to send an incendiary message, you are not afforded the social cues that might tell you to back off.

Pressing send is hard to resist when you can vent your fury using exactly the words you want. When faced with a live human being, most of us aren't that pithy. With email those smartly worded comments come all too easily.

Intentionally or not, many of us have been ruder on email than we ever would be in person. On the other hand, maybe it’s good practice for those face-to-face confrontations with people like Joe Wilson … Serena Williams…. Kanye West....

This post originally appeared on Open Salon.


  1. Sometimes I wonder if those of us who are used to editing and writing concisely--taking *The Elements of Style* to heart--sometimes create too much impact with our sharp little emails.

    On the other hand, presumably we're more aware of how words impact others emotionally, at least if we're paying attention before we hit send. As with other kinds of writing, it's about developing the right style--in this case, perhaps more chatty than average for me--then again, sometimes I do just shoot off those one-sentence communiques(!)

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  2. Sometimes the tone is in the 'ear' of the receiver. Sometimes it is in the 'voice' of the sender.

  3. I'm a person who views email (especially a professional message or one sent to someone I don't know well) the same way I view a letter sent through the mail. I imagine that it might be passed around and read by people I don't know, who would then judge me on my proper (or im-) use of language and tone.

    I got a lot of flack for this at my office, but my boss would send messages to the State Department that were filled with typos. I always thought my concern for the precision of language in something that is seen as a throw-away by most people is rooted in the fact that I'm a writer and care about every word I produce regardless of where it appears.

    I long ago realized that I can't help myself from looking at it this way! It's nearly impossible for me to send an email message without rereading it and (if needed) correcting it.

    How about the rest of you?

  4. Elizabeth,
    I couldn't agree with you more. My husband, who is definitely a non-writer, says you always have to assume that your emails are being forwarded to others.

    Unless I am sending a one-word 'thank you.' I generally re-read and revise most everything I send at work.

    Also, there is the interesting phenomenon of the blind copy. You never know who else has been copied on the email you receive. One of my current colleagues has said that she can usually tell if others have been bcc'd on an email at our workplace if it is unusually formal or especially polite.


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