Discretion in e-mail criticism

In this series on discretion, I started with general guidelines about expressing opinions when on the job and representing one's employer and then moved on to special restrictions on people wearing military and other uniforms. Today I want to touch on awareness about e-mail protocol.

In a paper entitled, "Using E-mail Safely and Well (v3)" I cover some fundamentals of secure use of e-mail such as proper choice of subject line, the use of CC and BCC, and so on. However, there's another topic I'll add to the paper: discretion in sending off-the-cuff critical comments to someone via corporate e-mail.

All of us encounter times where we disagree with something our colleagues are saying or doing; however, not every impulse to respond should lead to an official e-mail: those should be regarded as on-the-record communications that may be interpreted – and misinterpreted – by others in the organization who may jump to conclusions that are unwarranted. An ill-construed, poorly-thought-out remark could cost the recipient, the sender, or both their jobs.

Let's take a look at a scenario and analyze what's happening.

Albert sends Bob an e-mail addressed only to Bob. In it, Albert speculates about possible business strategies for their employer. Bob disagrees with his perception of the suggestion and writes a highly critical memo back to Albert using the company's e-mail. However, it turns out that either through unclear writing from Albert or misunderstanding by Bob, the information and assumptions detailed in Bob's response can easily be viewed as indicating that Albert is undermining the interests of his own employer.

What are the possible sources of disagreement whenever people don't see eye to eye?

• They may differ in fundamental assumptions;

• Their vocabulary may differ: they use words differently;

• Their unspoken goals and values may differ;

• Their implicit reasoning may differ;

• They may lack essential shared information;

• They may have made a mistake in observation, reasoning, or articulation of their views.

What are some of the elements that lead to a perception of impoliteness in communications? In a 2008 book called "Impoliteness in Interaction", Professor Derek Bousfield, PhD, Head of Linguistics, English Language, Literature & Culture at University of Central Lancashire in England analyzes elements of impoliteness using detailed records of less-than-pleasant interactions. In Chapter 6, "The dynamics of impoliteness I," he discussed several stages and levels of impoliteness. Elements he analyzes in detail include (examples are my own):

• Pre-impoliteness sequences: words and phrases that set the stage for aggressive or defensive speech; e.g., "I'd like to ask you…." Or "Listen to me...."

• Repetition of challenges: rapid sequences of accusatory language that emphasizes hostility; e.g., "Don't you think that….Isn't it obvious that….Why can't you see that…."

• Insertion of taboo words: obscenities, shocking images; e.g., "Why the **** can't you see that…." or "What's the matter with you, you have your head stuck up your ***?"

• Derogatory nominations: demeaning descriptions of the interlocutor or of ideas; e.g., "You're a real [insert insult here] sometimes" or "Well that idea is really off the wall."

• Forcing feedback: demanding a response at the end of a hostile interaction; e.g., "Why did you do that?"  or "So what are you going to do about it?"

In my experience, many people don't edit their e-mails at all before sending them; some don't even check their spelling. Under those circumstances, an e-mail that seems like a collection of blurted-out insults can make any situation worse.

Any time we find ourselves starting to use hostile expressions in our e-mail, it's time to stop and think:

• Will this interaction contribute to solving a problem or will it make it worse?

• Would it be better to meet the interlocutor face to face instead of relying on e-mail?

• Failing that, can we use a video link (e.g., Skype) to discuss the issue with a modicum of body-language that can clarify feelings instead of letting them be guessed from written, often poorly-edited, spontaneous reactions in e-mail?

• If video isn't available, can we at least telephone the interlocutor or use VoIP tools for the interaction? At least there will be verbal cues about the feelings involved.

• If none of the live-contact interactions are available, is instant messaging available, with its menus of emoticons that can provide clarification of emotional context – and lead to rapid interaction point by point instead of forcing a delayed response to an extensive message?

In my e-mail client, I have a 30-minute send-cycle; unless I cause an immediate SEND, my e-mail sits in an outbox for a while before it gets sent. Those minutes of buffering have saved me from errors of content and of judgement; perhaps they will be useful to you too.

Think carefully about the responses your message will elicit; work for collaboration and cooperation, not conflict by default.

Learn more about this topic

Discretion when wearing a uniform

Discretion on the job

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