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Deconstructing the Myth of Email As a Conflict-Prone Medium

Email is often considered a medium prone to conflict. The common explanation is that it’s because emotional content is lacking. In the late 90s, I remember reading an article about a president of some company banning the use of email because his employees were constantly fighting and arguing over email. He felt that it was counter productive. To some degree, this was true in my own experience also. Even a new word was invented for this phenomenon: flaming. My own theory is that it was caused by our unfamiliarity with how to express ourselves in writing because we had been using phones as the primary medium of communication before email. The switch wasn’t just a technological one; it forced us to switch from speaking to writing. It wasn’t because of something inherent in email as a medium that caused the conflicts. In fact, it wasn’t because writing is inherently more prone to conflict either. It was because of the learning curve. It is like the learning curve the Chinese people are facing with driving cars in China. (In 2004, at least 300 people were killed in traffic accidents every day.)

It is not true that writing cannot express emotions well. If it were true, we wouldn’t have so many great novels and poems. In fact, face-to-face or over-the-phone conversations have many disadvantages in terms of communicating our emotions accurately.

  • When we talk in real-time, we are more likely to say things that we shouldn’t have said, or miss what we should have said.
  • We tend to interrupt the other person when we should be listening.
  • We tend to misunderstand what the other said because we are too busy thinking about what we want to say next.
  • We have no record of what we said, so we become less responsible for what we said and how we interpreted the other during our conversations. It can more easily lead to confusion because nobody’s memories are perfect.
  • Face-to-face settings actually have too much emotional information which makes us more afraid of sharing deeper, more intimate thoughts and feelings. (This is why apologizing over the phone or email is often easier than doing so in person.)
  • There is no single correct way to interpret someone’s emotion, so providing more can lead to more misunderstandings.

On the other hand, writing forces us to understand what the other person is trying to say before we start composing our own thoughts. We can do so at our own pace and schedule (like sleeping on it before we respond). We cannot interrupt the other person. A common communication technique used in couple’s therapies is for each person to take a turn speaking for a set period of time (say 15 minutes) while the other listen attentively without saying a word (suppressing all urges to react). Writing naturally forces this.

And, if we say something wrong or inappropriate, we would be forced to confront our mistake, accept it and apologize because there is written proof of what we said. Owning up to our own part of the conflict is a critical part of resolving any inter-personal conflicts.

With writing, it is also possible to bring in a more objective third party to resolve the conflict because we can share the log of our conversation.

The New York Times recently published an article about how divorced couples are embracing the electronic mediums to communicate and coordinate with their ex-spouses. With writing, it is much easier to control how emotions are communicated. Between bitterly-divorced couples, even a slight grin, an awkward pause, or a subtle hand gesture could easily be misinterpreted and trigger conflicts. Email allows them to have a safe distance while communicating practical matters.

In the early days of email, we did not understand the medium properly, and tried to use it just as we used to use phones. This lead to all sorts of trouble. Now most of us have an intuitive understanding of email as a medium and know how to use it appropriately. Emoticons were invented to make email work closer to phones where emotions like laughter, cynicism, and disappointment were communicated through the tone of our voice. But good writers in history had never needed emoticons.

I would guess that, before the phones became ubiquitous, most people were able to write well because writing letters was the only way to communicate with people they couldn’t see in person. Writing was a critical communication skill then. With the popularity of phones, people stopped writing, and their writing skills deteriorated. This trend reversed when email was introduced. People blamed email for promoting bad writing habits or degrading their writing skills but it was the other way around; they did not notice how bad their writing skills had become because of the phones. And, once they started writing again via email, they noticed how bad they were, and wrongly blamed it on email. With phones being the dominant communication medium, there weren’t many opportunities to see other people’s writing skills. Email simply revealed how bad they had become.

These days, we have a variety of communication mediums to choose from. Video chat/conferencing (like Skype), phone/voice chat, email, social network sites (Facebook), instant messaging (IM), and texting. We should consider face-to-face meeting as a “medium” also. In Marshall McLuhan’s terms, some of them are “hot” while others are “cool” and their unique characteristics naturally dictate the types of content we deliver using them. As of now, the use of phones is declining because most people have become familiar with the other mediums, and realized that they are more effective (and natural) for certain types of communication. For example, on the way home from work, you might text your wife, “I’ll pick up milk,” because she is still at work. It would take more effort to compose an email for this, and you would be able to reach her quicker with texting (before she decides to buy the milk) without interrupting what she is doing.

Although we are rapidly inventing new communication mediums every year, we cannot master them so quickly. Adoption of a new medium takes a long time because human nature and habits cannot change so rapidly. Every new medium we attempt to adopt, we will face a learning curve, and we will make all sorts of mistakes. Like learning how to skate, we are going to fall many times before we can start enjoying it. Those mistakes are not part of the message of that medium. The message comes after we master it.

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