Flaming - An impulsive expression of strong opinion or emotion in an email; the electronic equivalent of flying off the handle.
"The attribute of email that most distinguishes it from other forms of communication is its ability to evoke extreme emotion in the recipient instantaneously” - Anderson and Shapiro, 1985
It is a familiar sight these days, a normally busy professional, sitting quietly, hands loosely cupped, head bowed, wearing an intense expression - it's a position almost like that of a prayer. But wait, the thumbs move furiously. Could they possibly be . . . typing?
It's the Blackberry! It (and others like it) is one of the most useful and /or annoying devices on the planet, depending upon your perspective. It is always connected and serves as a data organizer, a telephone and an email interface.
In days gone by, it was considered an absolute business necessity to take in-person meetings for even the most routine discussions. Similarly, it used to be that a live person was expected to answer the phone at your office, and you were expected to be available for a call, because obviously, it was very important, or they would not be calling!
Automated answering systems and voicemail changed this. Cell phones, 1-800 numbers and pay phones allow messages to be retrieved remotely and responded to, day or night. However, reading and responding to email while on travel remained problematic.
Then, Blackberry changed that, slowly replacing the telephone, letter writing and meetings as a primary means of communicating with others on mundane matters. Every break, delay, traffic jam or moment of down time can be used to handle issues, pass on information and monitor critical developments. It was only natural that those comfortable with the technology would begin to use it for more substantive communications.
However, researchers in a variety of disciplines are finding that the use of email makes it more likely that disagreements will escalate when compared to face to face, telephone or even written communications.
Of course, email does not turn all communications into conflicts. But, email does have characteristics that make us highly susceptible to escalation. For example: Because the nonverbal cues, feedback and vocal features are missing from the message; because emails are usually typed and read in isolation and for some people, the technology somehow blocks their perception of the human being on the other end; because people are multi-tasking and are not fully focused on choosing their words carefully; because emails are often read out of sequence so context is lost, or because others join into the discussion late, responding to earlier messages without having read the later ones.
Thinking back to the days of in person meetings, all of the people were in the same place at the same time. Each person could 'feel' the surroundings; i.e. was the room crowded, hot or otherwise uncomfortable. The speaker could see people shifting in their chairs or nodding in agreement or perhaps becoming distracted and in need of a break. When comments were made by others, or questions asked, the pitch of the voice, the tone of the words, and the pauses could be heard by everyone, as well as sighs and or um-humms from others in the room. Also, as the conversation evolved, it was experienced and understood as it was happening, so it was possible for anyone to speak up at any moment to get clarification or contribute to the conversation or steer it back to more fruitful areas.
Despite the down sides, email is here to stay, so using email effectively becomes an essential skill. Following a few simple rules will go a long way toward avoiding flaming. For example:
(1) Acknowledge that email might not be ideal, but is necessary under the circumstances.
(2) Use positive words and a constructive, problem-solving approach, responding to a flame worthy opinion with relevant facts;
(3) Resist the temptation to fire off a response to a flame, instead draft a response and let it sit a while before sending it, or break the conflict cycle with a phone call;
(4) Assume the good intentions and competence of the sender;
(5) Read the original message again for misinterpretation or an honest mistake, and
(6) Be aware of the types of email messages that are likely to exacerbate conflict, such as: expressing dissatisfaction with someone else's work; sensitive or personal matters; complaining, and where a written record of the discussion could be misused in the future or where the boss is being blind copied on the communications. In these circumstances, if the option to have an in-person meeting is available, that would most likely be the less risky approach.
V. Michelle Obradovic, Esq. is the owner of Wise Resolution, LLC. She is a mediator is an Associate Adjunct Professor at Samford University, Cumberland School of Law teaching Mediation Advocacy.