By Will Schwalbe — Even the most placid soul can find her or himself in the midst of a full-fledged, take-no-prisoners flame war. One minute you are scoring a minor point, then a few more emails go back and forth, and soon you are choosing the perfect vicious barb to complete an angry screed.

We all know jerks who live for this kind of angry exchange. This post is not for them. This is for those of us who would rather not spend our lives composing savage emails – and who realize the enormous danger they post to our careers. One livid email, especially if taken out of context, can seriously damage your reputation.

Recently, a distinguished UK television producer wrote an angry email to her staff when they had neglected (or purposefully forgotten?) to ask her to sign a birthday card that was to be presented to one of the employees. That peeved email is now enjoying a very active and healthy life online and in the UK press. Perhaps some major aggravation was the spark for the boss’s intemperate email outburst? No one will ever know or really care. The birthday card email lives on forever.

So why do angry email exchanges happen to even placid souls?

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, wrote the following New York Times Op-Ed about conflicts around the world. It seems to apply equally well to the subject of flame wars.

“In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.

“The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed among of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on.”

The results were fascinating. The researchers reported that the volunteers typically responded with 40 percent more pressure than they had experienced. Concludes Gilbert:

“Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we receive.”

Moral of story? For preservation of your job, your business relationships, and your friendships – next time you find yourself in a situation where the emails are flying fast and furious, do consider that you may be as responsible for the escalation as the other party. When you feel your temperature rising, it’s a good sign that it’s time stop emailing and, perhaps, to pick up the phone or schedule a meeting or just let the issue go. Unless, of course, you want your version of the birthday card email to appear on the nightly news. In that case, in the immortal words of Clint Eastwood: “Make my day.”

Will Schwalbe is the co-author with David Shipley of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.

13 replies
  1. Frank Roche
    Frank Roche says:

    “Step Away from the E-Mail” is great advice. Otherwise, as you say, that angry e-mail will get a life of its own.

    I’m looking forward to reading you book, btw!

    • Jonha @Happiness
      Jonha @Happiness says:

      I totally agree and it’s fun to see how you put it simply and spot on. I’ve just recently received an infuriating email from a relative and instead of bursting into some flame war, I chose not to respond and let it down.

  2. Stephen Denny
    Stephen Denny says:

    P —

    Email Road Rage is an organizational cultural trait in many companies. Usually fairly disfunctional ones. I’d bet that most have issues with the effectiveness of their leadership; when there is a perceived weakness at the top, employees seem to look for opportunities to one-up peers and others via politics, e-scuds included.

    I had one boss ten years ago who, upon arriving, made one rule clear: all communication coming from his department was to be positive and polite. There would be a zero tolerance to ‘return fire’ and each nasty incoming note would be met with a, “thanks for your note!” and a professional response. It worked very well in a particularly negative workplace. I’ve used this rule since. It’s a good policy.

    Thanks –

  3. Tom O'Brien
    Tom O'Brien says:

    I think there is an element of *facelessness* to email that encourages otherwise sane people to do things they shouldn’t.

    My advice? Assume any email you send could be posted on the company bulletin board at any time.

    Tom O’B

  4. laurence haughton
    laurence haughton says:

    That email seems more like the typical “bossy” memo from some supervisor who thinks it is his/her prerogative to throw their authority around. I’ve seen the same message left on post-it notes and even heard similar finger wagging tirades in morning staff meetings. Same stuff / different means. Sounds like the kind of boss that inspired Ricky Gervais to write “The Office.”

  5. Almost Got It
    Almost Got It says:

    This is very good advice, even if it makes us uncomfortable. A couple of nasty email exchanges finally convinced me to leave my last job, and I’ve heard similar stories from many others. It is a phenomenon not unlike the friendship-detroying note-passing I remember from grade school, as my own daughter has recently encountered to her own chagrin. Authority figures who project a “No Interest/No Time!!” aura definitely contribute to the problem in the workplace; a growing articulateness, coupled with immaturity and shyness, to the notes which have hurt many a young girl. The rest of us simply have to contend with being human, which is liability enough, so Will Schwalbe’s words, admonishing though they be, are worth diamonds (or even more: one’s intact pension plan!)

  6. Nerd Guru
    Nerd Guru says:

    Great advice on dealing with these things. I was talking with Scott Allen about anger and emails this week on the subtopic of whether or not someone is really as angry as they seem. We talked about how it’s harder to control context in a text medium and that someone might not really be escalating a confrontation, but merely made word choices that are ambiguous.

    I haven’t read Send yet (am looking forward to it, though), but my trick for that is when some email ticks me off I have my wife read it before I respond. Since she doesn’t have the same perspective on my work issues that I do, she has a more open view of what the text might really mean. It’s saved me a lot of heartache over the years and I’ve wanted to kick myself when I forget to enlist her help on something that blew up when it didn’t have to.

  7. Michael Schaffner
    Michael Schaffner says:

    Tim Sanders has an excellent post “Write letters like Lincoln, to yourself.” http://sanderssays.typepad.com/sanders_says/2006/12/write_letters_l.html that talks about how “Lincoln wrote scathing and satirical letters to his generals and then filed them away and never sent them. Those letters, if sent, would have undermined his ability to inspire and lead.

    He was able to “air it out” without making enemies. This exercise was a useful tool in helping Lincoln to cope with the times and still influence people.”

    What an excellent idea

  8. Sonja Franks
    Sonja Franks says:

    Just for the record, there are people out there who actually love and embrace the fact that email is there, making it more convenient and cowardly, to cause problems for other people. I actually worked for a man who looked forward to sending and receiving critical, argumentative emails. Hours of productivity were lost to this activity. Needless to say, no one wanted to deal with him, and I actually quit the job to get away from him. I know it is extreme, but I don’t think it is that rare. Some people thrive on drama, and emails are a quick fix without actual confrontation.

  9. Will Schwalbe
    Will Schwalbe says:

    It is so fascinating to read all these comments. I love the expression “Step Away From the Email” and the phrase “Email Road Rage.” And the “assume any email could wind up on the company bulletin board (or the front page of the NYT)” is great advice.

    Good to see Gervais mentioned, too — I gather that The Office (US Version) featured an email episode last week, though I haven’t caught up with it. As for the comparison to seventh grade note-exchanging — that really struck a chord with me. A painful one. Email seems to encourage those same lesser angels of our nature that often emerge in the early teen years.

    Also loved seeing Scott Allen referenced. I’m a big fan of his book, The Virtual Handshake. And the Lincoln post is a revelation. We quote one Lincoln story in the book. Scary — Lincoln was ahead of the curve in just about every respect.

    And, yes, one of the things that prompted us to write this was the trouble caused by people who love email drama. We can’t stop them — but we can expose them. Working on post two. Again, thanks for all the great comments.

     –Will

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