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Digital Discourse Gone Bad

For those of you reporting to new internships and positions, here are four strategies for civilized cyberspace discourse.

By Kimberly Del Bright

Did you know that according to The Wall Street Journal, the smiley-face emoticon (☺) was first used in 1982 to prevent misunderstandings among online discussion group members? Scott E. Fahlman, an artificial-intelligence expert, suggested participants use the smiley-face to prevent exchanges among cyber-discussion members from degenerating into vituperative verbal attacks or what we now refer to as flame wars. Saving cyberspace from uncivilized behavior with the use of just a smiley-face has not worked. Much of our digital discourse has gone bad. Just ask people whether they've ever sent or received an angry workplace e-mail and you'll get a sense of the magnitude of the problem. For those of you reporting to new internships and positions, here are four strategies to douse these flames.
Digital Discourse Gone Bad


  • Take ten. The speed at which we can communicate using e-mail gives it an advantage over some traditional methods of communication (e.g. memos and telephone calls). However, the ease and quickness of e-mail exchanges can also lead to problems. I have a friend who told me that when she's at work, and she finds herself beginning an e-mail with "And another THING"—she stops, takes (at least) ten minutes, and then composes the response in a Word document. This smart woman realizes no good can come of the situation until she calms down.

    You may want to compose a nasty e-mail as therapy and then throw it away. Just make sure you don't fill in the addressee in case you hit the wrong button by mistake. E-mails should not be conceived in anger; it's hard to create a solution when all you want to do is destroy.

  • Think tone. Tone comes from word choice, formatting, sentence structure, and the length of the message. It impacts the way your reader will "hear" your message, and it reflects your attitude towards the reader.

    Choose your words carefully. For example, instead of writing, "You didn't get the report to me," try, "I received the report two days late." Avoid formatting that indicates YELLING. Also, please trrrrrrrry to watch formatting that gives a sarcastic tone. Short (simple) sentences sound harsh if overused, particularly when the sender's message was long and engaging. A response to an angry e-mail doesn't have to be lengthy, but avoid mean-spirited one-liners. "You suck" has a lot of BTUs in a flame war. A rule to follow is to ask yourself, "Would I say this if the person were sitting across the desk from me?" If the answer is "no," rewrite a message that fits this rule.

    In Send: the Essential Guide to E-mail for Office and Home (2007), David Shipley and Will Shwalbe suggest avoiding the following loaded and rhetorical questions.

    I can't imagine why . . .
    You'll have to . . .
    Is it too much to ask . . .
    Why in the world . . .
    It seems odd that . . .
    Just curious, but . . .
    Please explain to me . . .

    They also mention the rhetorical question can be equally destructive:

    What were you thinking?
    Did you really say that?
    What ever gave you that idea?

    This book is a good resource for additional reading on e-mails, particularly ones that have duplicity, anger, and sarcasm.

  • Empathize. This one is difficult, but it's worth buckets of water. Really work at understanding your angry sender's point of view. Is he/she under more stress than usual? Having family or health problems? Being bullied into taking a hard line? If you can think as kindly as possible about your reader while you compose your message, you can unleash reconstructive energies that move the focus away from the conflict and towards the solution.

    A friend of mine who successfully works in customer service with difficult people told me her secret to effective communication is to always assume the best about people. She acknowledged that some people won't live up to this expectation, but it helps her have a positive approach that contributes to establishing good rapport. I've used this "think positive thoughts" approach with e-mail communications as both a teacher and a writer, and it works. Practice empathy. "I can understand your frustration," written truthfully and from the heart is a giant step towards cyber-harmony.

  • No scolding or broadcasts. Yes, the golden rule: write e-mails you'd like to receive. Do you like to be scolded? Avoid the "shame on you" e-mail. And know that an e-mail that begins, "I'm disappointed in your behavior" intentionally wants you to feel small and weak. This parental shaming tactic is often the mark of a cyber-arsonist. It's designed to provoke you into a childish temper tantrum. In this case, remember you don't have to prove your strength, and that's what makes you strong. It's obvious you're a grown-up because you're wise to this incendiary tactic, and you keep the focus on the solution.

    Some cyber-arsonists, sensing their own weakness, will try and pile on additional people to their cause and use the CC to add intensity to the heat. If they chose this tactic, CC'd recipients may see this as an invitation to start additional flame border skirmishes depending on their own agendas. Remember the "reply all" button equals a torch. However, it is difficult to put out multiple fires at once without additional firefighters. Recruit using the face-to-face conversation. For example, if your supervisor has been CC'd and the e-mails are likely to be misunderstood, make an effort, without being defensive, to casually and briefly explain the whole situation. Reassure your boss that you have the fire under control, and these distractions aren't affecting your productivity. Use this fire hose strategy only if you smell gasoline in the office.

It is true; some people just don't play well with others, and if this is the case, the best you can do is envision yourself as a role model and get fitted for a fire suit. At all costs, avoid losing your restraint. Remember you don't have to be friends with senders of nasty e-mails, but you do have to be productive if it's a workplace scenario. Cool, calm, and collected should be your workplace mantra. Ambrose Bierce stated in The Devil's Dictionary that the telephone was "an invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance." No doubt if Bierce were alive today, he'd add e-mails to this definition too.

Kimberly Del Bright is a writer and educator at the Pennsylvania State University in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Her work has appeared in journals, newspapers, and magazines.

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