July 13, 2007
How Email Words Can Hurt You
~ written by Terri Meister, PhD, Case Western Reserve University
Did you ever send an email that was misunderstood and resulted in an unforeseen conflict or even cost you a client? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of a rude and angry message? Let’s assume you are a skillful communicator who expresses his or herself clearly and persuasively in memoranda and briefs. So why are your emails particularly vulnerable to miscommunication?
The answer lies in the medium itself. There is an emerging field called social neuroscience, which explains what goes on in the brains and bodies of interacting people. Basically, an inherent flaw exists between the brain's social circuitry and the online world. Specifically, the orbitofrontal cortex (the part of the brain that picks up cognitive meaning) does not have enough information from an email to make a socially artful response. In face-to-face interaction, the cortex -- using information like a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression and other subtle signs of disapproval or indifference -- can inhibit unruly impulses coming from the amygdala (the part of the brain that picks up danger/negative content). In addition, the right hemisphere language region does not recognize words, but does pick up “prosody.” The emphasis on syllables, the pauses, the up and down inflections, the tone all add meaning that is not carried in words themselves. Because the brain is at a loss in email, inflammatory messages (better known as “flaming”) occur. And those lame little emoticons can’t make up for the neural power of a smile or a frown.
Dr. John Suler (2004) defines the phenomenon of people saying and doing things in cyberspace that they would not ordinarily say face-to-face (CyberPsychology and Behavior 2004) as the “online disinhibition effect.” This effect can be benign (when shy people open up) or toxic (when people use rude language, harsh criticisms, anger, hatred and even threats.) Several psychological factors contribute to online disinhibition that are particularly relevant to attorneys. Anonymity is one. It’s so easy to hide some or all of your identity online. Because of the level playing field the Internet creates, it’s also easy to minimize someone’s offline status and power. Emailers can compartmentalize themselves and behave much differently online than off.
Invisibility is another effect. Even if you know the identity of the people you’re communicating with, you still cannot see or hear them. They don’t have to worry much about how they look or sound when they type a message. And they don’t have to be around for your reaction. Emails are asynchronous: unless you’re instant messaging, you’re not interacting with each other in real time. Not having to cope with someone’s immediate reaction disinhibits people. You can post a message that is hostile, delivering an “emotional hit and run” as one psychologist calls it, and then go treat yourself to a cup of coffee. Or, alternatively, you can delay responding to a message and make the sender feel rejected.
Perhaps with the advent of video chat and other more advanced forms of communication modules, our cortexes will have something more to go on than textual cues. But for now, with email dominating all other forms of communication, an attorney’s writing skills will determine more than ever the power he or she has in influencing others.
You may learn more about polishing your emailing skills on Thursday, October 4 from 9:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. with Dr. Mester by registering for “Everything Email for the Legal Professional: Management, Etiquette, Tone, Structure, Style, Format,” event #3720. Register online by clicking here, or register by phone at 614/221.4112. The cost is $85 prepaid/$100 day of for members, $125 prepaid/$140 day of for non-members and $55 prepaid/$70 day of for paralegals.