What do you do when writings inflame you ? – Go Direct

Updated May 16, 2006: Christian Science Monitor talks about this issue which we covered April 11, 2006. Please see below for more details.

Dave Gray wrote this insightful post “Go Direct” to explain how to handle situations when someone upsets you. Excerpt:

So what do you do?

1. Take a minute. Cool down.
2. Pick up the phone, or walk over to the person’s desk. Don’t send email.
3. Tell them what you are concerned about.
4. Ask them what you can do
5. Listen.

Its a very powerful technique and works very well. When I started thinking about how many times “hurt” happens, I realized that it happens more often due to some email that someone wrote or a blog post that someone wrote or a comment on a blog that someone wrote. Maybe the frequency is correlated with the dramatic increase in electronic communication and most of it is of the text kind (email, blogs, discussion forums, IM chats, SMS messages).

So the question is, why is textual communication generating more “hurt” ?

The answer comes from Chris Allen’s insightful post “Flames: Emotional Amplification of Text“:

Since text is lacking tonal and visual context, we have a tendency to over-interpret any emotional content that does exist.

Additionally text comes devoid of body language as well. In sum, text can be misinterpreted. In fact, Chris quoting from research published in the Wired magazine says that we only have a 50-50 chance of interpreting tone correctly.

He goes on to explain how the misinterpretation generates a seething response which in turn begets more seething responses setting off a vicious cycle.

Chris also gives some very good ideas on how to avoid this by following some simple rules:

Thus I now find that now there are certain words and phrases that I avoid using when responding to people online. I have to be very careful with irony and sarcasm, and when I use them I include symbols such as smilies to such give the emotional context that is missing from the text. I find that even the slightest hint of blame will be over-interpreted. I avoid the words “should” and “didn’t”, never tell someone that they forgot something, etc.

These simple rules will help us avoid generating misinterpretations. But if you are the one that is misinterpreting someone else’s writings, use Dave Gray’s Go Direct method, don’t send emails. 


Christian Science Monitor carried an article on “Why emails are so misunderstood“.  (Via slashdot).  Its an interesting article worth a read. The graphic below from the article, corroborates what we wrote before:


1. Also read Chris’s excellent post “Extrapolative hostility in the online medium” for additional information on this topic.