Has it ever happened to you? Your friend or colleague sent you an amusing email. You quickly composed a clever riposte. You clicked "send". And then you had second thoughts: Oh dear, I forgot that X is a little vulnerable in that area; she might take it up the wrong way; I wish I hadn’t sent that message…
It is so easy to forget your manners when you are not dealing with people in the flesh, or even on the phone. Easi-er, anyway. We make blues in face to face conversation, of course, but seldom with the drastic effects that an email blunder can bring. A major incident occurred in one large organisation when a surly complaint about the cleaning staff was sent by mistake to all the staff representatives instead of department managers. Such anecdotes abound.
The potential for messaging meltdown is increased when such systems are used precisely to avoid direct communication. There is a tendency in our society to seek technological solutions for human problems: Depressed? Take Prozac. Don’t like your figure? Get some liposuction. Find the times tables hard to learn? Use a calculator. In communication, we tend to flee from difficult interpersonal issues and use technology instead — most notoriously, email and texting. But this only delays the time when we will have to confront a real person, or the real issue, and when that happens, we may wish we had never left that electronic trail.
Message rule 1: No email is private
Politicians are learning this lesson the hard way. US Congressman Mark Foley saw his career and personal reputation turn to dust when it came to light a few months ago that he had sent sexually explicit emails to male teenage messengers on Capitol Hill. In New Zealand, leaked emails about campaign donors helped to bring down the leader of the main opposition party in November. In the first case the messages were immoral, while in the second they were politically controversial, but in both cases private communications turned out to be publicly damaging.
In the words of one netiquette expert, "there is no such thing as a private email… [D]on’t send anything by email that you would not want posted on the company bulletin board. If it’s safe enough for the bulletin board, it’s safe enough for email. Finally, if you are debating whether or not to send something personal by email, either deliver it by hand or send it by snail mail." If it is a personal matter, why not chat over a cup of coffee or use the telephone?
When it comes to defending yourself against unpleasant material (flame-mail) there are some helps available. The email programme Eudora has a warning system — for outgoing as well as incoming mail — that detects aggressive, demeaning or rude language and flags it with "chili" pepper icons. One chili signals, "Better hope you know the person," while three means , "Whoa, this is the kind of thing that might get your keyboard washed out with soap."
By the way, if you don’t want your very important message to go straight in the electronic bin, do be careful about the subject line. With so much spam coming in, goofy subject lines are a big risk. Be serious about it.
Message rule 2: Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes
In a world addicted to convenience, email has distinct advantages over other ways of communicating. It is less effort to pick up the phone, but more effort to have a telephone conversation — with its demand for quick thinking and good judgement — and simply tedious to go through the rigmarole of voice mail and automated answering systems. Email allows time to consider: you can reply in two minutes or two days — or not at all. You can skip social niceties (hello, how are you, must get back to work now, goodbye…) and get straight to the point. A degree of informality is appropriate to the medium and the spirit of the age.
But convenience is hardly the guiding star in human relations. We can be too terse or offhand. A study by two business school professors of how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages showed that email users overestimate their ability to both communicate and decode feelings. A typical email seems like face to face communication, says Nicholas Epley, but it lacks the body language and tone of voice that help convey our meaning in a personal encounter. And we underestimate this because we are egocentric: we assume that others experience stimuli in the same way we do.
Epley advises: Try to read your message from the recipient’s point of view. Read it aloud in the opposite way you intend, whether serious or sarcastic. If it makes sense either way, revise. Don’t rely on emails to convey subtleties of feeling or intention.
Message rule 3: Combine email with phone and face-to-face
Even in business dealings non-verbal cues carry an important part of the meaning. Researcher Michael Morris and colleagues found that negotiators exchange more than three times the information in face-to-face interactions as they do via email. Although email lets negotiators make "more complex, multiple-issue offers", they ultimately built less rapport, thereby increasing tensions and lowering the average economic value of the agreements.
The remedy, fortunately, is quite simple. Morris’ team found that agreements negotiated by email dramatically improved when negotiators first broke the ice with a 5 to 10 minute chat on the phone. Extended dealings with others on a professional basis will go better if you meet them personally early in the piece or at least talk by phone.
Message rule 4: If you can’t say it face-to-face, don’t email or text it either
Email is a "cold" medium, according to some Californian young people studied by Jan English-Lueck, almost as cold as face-to-face conversation and the telephone. You can’t trust these methods, they say. The way to be really authentic is through texting and instant messaging.
What do they mean? That they don’t like the randomness of conversation, the awkward silences or the outbreaks of talk that might make you say something embarrassing. They like to be in control of what they say, says Prof English-Lueck. "I think they’re composing an identity that they’re comfortable presenting to other people."
But isn’t that the opposite of authenticity? Surely it is conversation in real time that shows the real you — for better or for worse. If you are a different person in your messages than in the flesh, you had better close the gap in the direction of your better self.
Deliberation in speech is often necessary. In cyber-life, however, this often leads to boasting and even flat out lying. New websites hosting party invitations encourage inflated replies — which are all on display — to entertain and impress the other invitees. The New York Times quotes a mother of two young children who admits to spending 20 precious minutes drafting a "no" response to one invitation. "There’s pressure. You’re on stage," said the woman — who found it necessary to make an unpleasant jibe at her relations in the elaborate refusal.[i]
Lying about age and marital status is par for the course in the world of cyber-flirting, and the medium also speeds up the process. In a face-to-face setting it typically takes many hours of flirting before anything sexual is mentioned, one researcher points out, where in email it could happen within five minutes. Even though the parties may never meet, such affairs can wreck marriages.
Message rule 5: What’s true for email is even more true for messaging and texting
When cyber-infidelity is proliferating, along with the all-too-convenient cellphone, it is not surprising to find cyber-divorce. "So lng," said pop star Britney Spears in a text message to her husband of two years, Kevin Federline, in November. Mr Federline made the mistake of checking messages while he was filming (in Canada) and this one upset him so much he had to take a half-hour break.
Although that is the sort of behaviour one has come to expect of celebrities, the precedent, surprisingly, was set in the Muslim state of Dubai almost six years ago. Under Islamic law, Muslim men who want a separation must first make a declaration by saying "I divorce you" (talaq) three times. In this case, the husband sent a message to his wife’s cellphone saying: "Why are you late? You are divorced." The courts recognised the divorce on the advice of scholars who said it was valid because the husband expressed the will to divorce and the wife received it. The couple, who had a young child, were subsequently living together anyway.
The idea caught on in Malaysia, where an Islamic court in 2003 declared the validity of a text message divorce, despite the fact that pronouncing the talaq outside a court is a crime in the country’s secular law. Women politicians have condemned the trend as cruel and humiliating to wives, but it was still an issue last year when the husband of a popular singer sent her the message, "I release you," and then changed his mind. A court ruled they were still legally married.
What rule can we derive from this? Text in haste, repent at leisure? A cellphone retailer consulted on the Spears-Federline case made the very quotable comment: "It is instant gratification — and delayed mortification. At some point they will have to shout at each other."
The wireless generation may believe otherwise, but it seems pretty clear that depending heavily on messaging when normal interaction is possible, is a way of avoiding the hard work and the real rewards of personal relationships, and carries the temptation to create an inauthentic self. Whatever cannot be said face-to-face should not be sent through the ether.
On the other hand, not everything that is legitimate and desirable in conversation should be written down — even, or especially, in text. Some things are too personal to be trivialised like that. And other things are just too trivial.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.
[i] "Online R.S.V.P.’s: A Simple No Just Won’t do," NYT, December 7, 2006