E-moting by E-Mail
March 16, 2002
Ever had an argument via e-mail? :( Wanna have one now? Well, be very careful. E-mail disagreements are not only more likely to escalate than person-to-person discussions, it seems they also leave a written trail for hard feelings to follow. A couple of little-noticed new studies indicate, first, the growing importance of e-mail communications in everyday business and personal lives beyond the superficial "How R U?" messages and, second, the invisible dangers increasingly inherent in the informal, intimate and yet strangely disconnected format of e-mail. As the use and depth of e-mail mature, the implications for society and individual relationships mount too.
In the early days of e-mail, way, way back late last century, personal e-mail was merely a hasty electronic postcard not used for subtle or sophisticated messages but just for reaching out to someone quickly and simply. It's perfectly suited for hectic superficial times when really listening is so rare that statements often require repeating. It's perfectly suited for hectic superficial times when really listening is so rare that statements often require repeating. Such stamp-free missives do survive during times of crisis: A UCLA study found that immediately after Sept. 11, 100 million Americans--around 57% of all e-mailers--sent or received expressions of concern. But as Internet use and e-mail familiarity have grown, so has the expectation for and content of e-mail. New research by the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds the Internet less a novelty now and more a purposeful tool for work and communicating more weighty, urgent contents to colleagues, friends and family. E-mail is easy, quick, informal. That's the appeal--also the danger. E-mails invite assumptions about casualness, understandings, confidentiality. Assumptions are the land mines of communications. Few invest the intellectual effort composing e-mails that they would, say, a formal letter. Ray Friedman was intrigued with e-mail protocols and disputes, especially after escalating exchanges with an editor sundered a friendship. He teaches conflict and negotiation at Vanderbilt University.
Beware, his new study lists many dangers. Conversations provide instant audio and often visual feedback; e-mails don't. When talking, people take turns point by point, adjusting their presentations and responses as they read their partner; e-mails are unidirectional, delivering 12 firm points quickly but in a peremptory lump. By No. 6 the recipient is livid, by No. 12 apoplectic, which shapes his or her thermonuclear response. Nor have emoticons, those terribly cute little punctuation marks misused to depict sideways smiley faces :), crying :~(~~ , anger >>:<< and Marge Simpson *****:-), proved all that effective, especially among males. Instead, they can seem forced and, well, stilted :I ===
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