Getting out of Hot Water

Sooner or later, most people get into hot water using e-mail. In my case it was sooner. Many years ago, I typed up my personal notes (including “humorous” asides on the participants) from an EU project meeting as an informal e-mail to our project leader, who had asked for my input into the meeting minutes. He forwarded my mail – unedited – to all participants as the official minutes. I would not have made those asides to the people in person; at the time of writing the mail, it seemed ok.

In today’s New York Times, Daniel Goleman discusses recent neuroscience research on e-mails and online behaviour. Online, our brains lack the visual cues needed for social communication, leading to what psychologists call “online disinhibition effect”. In face-to-face interaction, the brain’s centre for empathy processes cues and signals from the discussion and modulates the unruly impulses sent out by our amygdala. Without such moderation, it is too easy to send a hasty or intemperate e-mail (“flame”) before a moment’s reflection would let us delete the mail, unsent.

One suggested solution is to use video or web-cam, so that we can pick up more signals. Goleman describes another: a poster of a traffic or stoplight beside the monitor. I learned from my project experience and adopted an old-fashioned solution. I begin my e-mails by writing, “Dear X”, hit return three times and then write my closing, e.g. “Best regards”. Now I start to write the content of the mail, reminded that it has the formality of a letter.

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