For a long time, I would advise people never to hold emotionally charged conversations by email, because the lack of nonverbal or even vocal cues in a typed message remove too much crucial information from the communication.
My thinking is a little more nuanced now, and it’s useful to consider both the benefits and the shortcomings of email, especially when you’re trying to work through an interpersonal conflict. If you’re feeling angry, anxious or overly negative about a problem with another person, you should consider some of the unique aspects of email and decide whether this method of communication is right for your situation.
Email communicates words, and words only. This is the most obvious aspect. The recipient of your email won’t be seeing your body language or facial expression and won’t be hearing your vocal tone or volume—these are all enormously influential parts of face-to-face communication. You might think that your words can only be interpreted one way, but you’re not in the other person’s shoes. Try this: say aloud, as if you were talking to someone else: “I can’t believe you decided to do the project that way!” in the most admiring, respectful way you can. Now say exactly the same thing, and give it the most baffled, disgusted tone you can manage. Precisely the same words, with completely opposite meanings. The reader of an email wouldn’t get which way you meant. Even emoticons can sometimes be misinterpreted! Email in the midst of a charged conflict often calls for you to write more simply and directly than you might otherwise, to minimize the chances of misinterpretation. Some people like to show their draft emails to others they trust, in order to get impartial feedback on how the words are coming across.
Email gives you control over time, place and content. If you’re having a serious fight with someone and feel that being in the same room with him/her would fluster you to the point that you couldn’t fire on all cylinders, email lets you compose your statement in a safe space, without the other person present to trigger you, at your own comfortable rate. It allows you to go over your message as many times as you like until you’re certain that you’re expressing yourself in exactly the way you want.
Reading can often be more triggering than hearing. If you’re having an argument with someone and you say something that the other person doesn’t want to hear, he/she might get angry or frustrated at that moment, but the argument is still happening, and you’re right there—this gives the other person incentive to stick with it. In an email, it’s easy if you see a word or phrase that sets you off to skip the rest of the message—even if you think you’re still reading it, you might find that your eyes are still moving over the words but you’re really just steaming about the appalling phrase you read in the previous paragraph. People have even been known to hit Delete reflexively when an email wasn’t going the way they wanted. On the other hand, an email gives the reader a chance to stop and “cool off” before continuing—something you don’t often get in the heat of a face-to-face argument.
You have no control over the timing of the other person’s response. Because email travels instantly, we sometimes expect an instant or near-instant response. This can lead to great bouts of mind-reading when the response doesn’t come right away, trying to guess what the other person means by waiting an hour, a day, or a week. Are you comfortable waiting until the other person is ready to respond? Sometimes the response never comes, leaving you wondering even more. (Keep in mind the possibility of the spam trap!) For that matter, sometimes the other person decides that the argument has to be taken offline and dealt with face-to-face, even if you’ve decided that email is the way to go.
Different people have different writing styles. When an important topic is being discussed, some people are brief and to the point, while others write lengthy, detailed treatises. If the person you’re corresponding with seems overly short or excessively wordy, don’t assume that this approach means the same thing from him/her as it would if you were writing it.
Email lets you make your statement without hearing the immediate reaction. Is this good or bad? Some would say that this can lead to making fiery, confrontational accusations or insults, knowing that you can “go away” after hitting Send and avoid the recipient’s possibly explosive first response. On the other hand, if you have something that you’ve needed to express to someone for a long time and have refrained because you felt that you couldn’t handle the immediate flash of anger or sadness you would get back, email might remove that barrier for you.
Email can be forever. What you say in an email is text that your reader now holds for as long as he/she chooses. It’s exactly quotable later—by you, by the recipient, or by anyone you or the recipient has chosen to cc. Does this concern you to know that your words today might be brought back to you weeks or months from now? Or is it helpful to know that you won’t at some point in the future have words attributed to you that you never wrote, and that you can always refer to the literal content of what you did write?
Depending on your particular situation and comfort level, email might or might not be the most helpful medium for managing an interpersonal conflict. If you choose to proceed by email, you might find the following routine helpful:
- Don’t compose your email right away, when you’re the most upset. Take a time out away from the computer, tend to a few other tasks in your day, compose the occasional phrase in your head, then later sit down and start writing.
- After you’ve written a draft, don’t hit Send right away. Go away from it for a bit, then come back and reread. If possible, read it aloud to yourself and see if it comes out sounding the way you mean for it to come across.
- After you hit Send, don’t sit at your computer in anticipation of the response. Rather than sit in the anxiety of whatever comes next, make a plan to go and do something enjoyable or fulfilling right away.