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Feeling 'flamed?' Don't shoot the e-mail messenger
Published Friday, Sep. 29, 2006 7:33AM EDT
Last updated Monday, Apr. 06, 2009 11:43PM EDT
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Subject: flaming (the sending of insults via e-mail).
Most e-mail users feel they have been "flamed" at work on occasion and, in the heat of the moment, have fired back.
Often, however, the perceived insult is unintended. What the sender means to be a brief and efficient message is received as brusque and demanding, especially when the recipient is already feeling time-pressed and overloaded, according to Toronto researcher Carolyn Meyer, a communications professor at Toronto's Ryerson University.
Such miscommunication can cause unnecessary tension in the workplace -- which could be reduced if everyone thought more before hitting the send button, says Prof. Meyer, who recently presented her observations at an academic forum in Florida.
It does not help, either, that conversational niceties, such as please and thank you, are sometimes dropped from workplace e-mails in the interests of brevity, she says.
And if the recipient does not particularly like the sender, the very appearance of his or her name in the memo field can leave the recipient feeling "flamed" -- no matter how innocuous the message."The perception of a message as a flame may be influenced by past on-line interactions, and the nature of the sender and receiver's off-line relationship," she writes in her paper, Fanning the Flames: the Influence of Time Pressures and E-mail Overload on the Perception and Instigation of Flaming.
The very nature of e-mail as a communication tool is at the root of most unintentional flaming, she says, because there are none of the vocal or visual clues that can modify how the message is received in face-to-face conversation.
"While computer-mediated communication can seem like face-to-face communication in its informality and rapidity, the brevity of e-mail, the urgency with which it is read and written, and the lack of paralinguistic clues that help to regulate spoken communication can stifle rapport and make messages ambiguous, providing conditions conducive to the uninhibited expression of hostility or to the interpretation of hostility that can spark a flame," she writes.
Compounding the problem is the fact that e-mails can be saved, reread and brooded over. "Words that go unnoticed in face-to-face conversations may precipitate a strong emotional reaction when they appear on-line, with negative words and content becoming particular focal points for rumination and stimuli for retaliation."
And once the recipient retaliates with a sharply worded missive, the dispute can easily escalate into "what is called a flame war."
In the interests of workplace peace, Prof. Meyers recommends that e-mail senders keep the needs of recipients in mind, and curb the number of e-mails they unleash on co-workers -- "a high frequency of postings will require quicker and more sustained processing by group members."
Many of today's workers are now showing symptoms of "information anxiety," she writes. "This stress may be intensified through information overload that takes the form of glutted in-boxes . . .
"With limited time for e-mail triage, users may resort to prejudging messages or making inferences based on previous correspondence and interaction with the sender.
"Responses may reflect an imperfect ability to comprehend a message or adequately recall it's main points," she writes.
"While the distinction between a deliberate flame and an unintentional one is clear enough in theory, the differences may be less salient to busy e-mail readers who may not have established enough rapport…