7 ways to respond to—and avoid—escalating email snark

We’ve all been flamed in an email. Here’s how to deal with it without resorting to scorched-earth messages.

What!? Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! Why, you little…!

I’m so mad, I’m going to sit down and—get this—write you an email! Oh-ho-ho, that’ll teach you, my friend.

Maybe you’ll see things my way if I refer to you in terms relating to body parts, vulgar acts and substances that are raked into piles in barnyards.

Or perhaps I’ll take the high road, and simply employ my Wildean wit to get it through your thick skull that you’re making me angry.

Well, if you have ever been on the receiving end of an email sent in this spirit—and let’s face it, we’ve all been flamed—you realize they sting like a slap of cheap aftershave and can destroy, or at least stink up, a business relationship.

If you’ve ever sent one (Show of hands? Nobody? We knew Ragan.com readers were a high-minded bunch), you know you’ll soon regret sending it. It might even cost you your job.

The courtroom wall

As a former colleague of ours at the Chicago Tribune once said after he had testified in a libel suit, “Never write anything in an email you wouldn’t want to see projected up on a courtroom wall.” And that was after the paper won.

True, snark reaches into other digital forms. Web comments can be even more poisonous than email, because people often fire off their thoughts anonymously, like kids with slingshots shooting dirt clods into passing traffic. No wonder Roy Blount Jr. once told us the blogosphere “is encumbered by clutter, furtive meanness and wasted motion.”

Still, there’s something especially unpleasant about that e-turd that arrives in your in-box, hand-sculpted for you.

Sharlyn Lauby, a consultant who blogs at HR Bartender, has written about the dangers of firing off nasty emails. She warns that some people hit the send button before considering the consequences.

“Sometimes we forget when we’re supposed to pick up the phone and call somebody and when we’re supposed to email somebody,” she said in an interview.

Once Lauby received an angry email the recipient had apparently cc’d to her entire Outlook contact list, some of whom didn’t even know Lauby. Unfortunately, this only makes the bomb-thrower look bad.

What constitutes a flame email? In a paper on “Email Flaming Behaviors and Organizational Conflict,” author Anna K. Turnage cites studies showing that your message may be construed as flaming if you employ a range of hostile, aggressive, insulting and sarcastic tactics.

“In addition, other attributes, such as the use of profanity, all capital letters, or numerous punctuation marks at the end of a sentence in email messages, are sometimes said to be characteristic of flaming,” she says.

Lauby is one of many who have written about the problem of angry emails. Here are a few of their tips, both for sending and replying to emails:

1. Reread the original message.

All right, we’re guilty. We sometimes reply to emails after no more than a cursory glance.

“Read the original message again,” says a staff Internet etiquette post for Yale University Library. “You might be misinterpreting the message by the sender.”

2. Pause before responding to hostile messages.

Parents, remember the time you caught your preschooler scribbling on the wall or tormenting the cat with a water pistol? Instead of berating the kid at the top of your lungs, you counted to 10 in your mind, took a deep breath and came up with a cooler reply.

Likewise with email. “Draft a response, and let it cool off for a time before sending it,” the Yalies suggest. “Reconsider your response again after a walk to the coffee or ice cream shop.”

Or better yet, after your workout.

3. Respond in person—or if that doesn’t work, by phone.

Things always escalate faster by email, right? Ask your snide correspondent for a meeting, or if the writer isn’t in your office building, pick up the telephone.

“Anger on My Mind,” the fittingly named blog of a North Carolina-based conflict management organization, suggests, “Offer to meet the person and talk face to face—constant emails back and forth can make a bad situation worst [sic].”

4. Don’t swear.

Yes, we all know you’re a Saturday night brawler who never goes to church and keeps a loaded Glock in the glove compartment. Your favorite book is, “Go the F**k to Sleep.”

Still, nobody’s going to mistake you for a Baptist deacon if you reply to that e-grenade without dropping the F-bomb. But they might take you for a professional.

5. Choose your words carefully.

A friend of ours once got a wrathful reply because he called a colleague “dude” in an email. The recipient thought he was being mocked. (Easy, big guy.)

This shows that email is easily misunderstood and that some prickly people populate the workplace. If “dude” can offend, a jokey insult that seems harmless in person might not come across well in an email.

6. Use emoticons and acronyms judiciously.

Emoticons are “meant to mimic emotional or facial cues not present in text-only communication,” Turnage writes.

Similarly, acronyms like LOL and J/K (for just kidding) “can, in limited ways, help an email recipient see that a joke is a joke.”

But don’t be like that passive-aggressive person who smiles while dishing out invective, then says in bewilderment: “Are you mad? But I was just kidding.”

7. If you must “Reply All,” do so cautiously.

There are moments when you are the recipient of a flaming email, and it’s essential that you hit the Reply All button in responding, Lauby says. Her blog offers several suggestions for doing this, but the takeaway is to refrain from responding in the same snarky spirit.

“You sit down, and you craft a message, and you look at it, and sleep on it, and you make sure that it comes across as you want it to,” Lauby says. “So that if you had to stand up in front of a room of people and say the same exact thing, you could tell yourself, ‘I’m still fine with that email.'”

“Don’t get drawn into an email war,” concludes the blog Growing Software Practices. “Better to resolve it off-line. High technology is great for informing, but everything seems harsher when send [it] in text.”

Any suggestions for dealing with email snark? Comment below. And people? Let’s play nicely.

Russell Working is a staff writer for Ragan.com, where this story first appeared.

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