Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Email Is Fucking Evil

I’m going to veer off a purely tech topic here and write about two recent events in my life that center around email. I’ve always been a huge fan of email as a means of communication because I like to write; I think I’m fairly decent at it. It gives me a chance to formulate my thoughts and say exactly what I mean to say. Which is, by and large, a good thing. Unless it comes to arguing, which is best done face-to-face. It’s way to easy to say exactly what you mean to say in an email argument, and that’s not a good thing. There’s no chance to temper what you really want to say with the reality of watching the body language and facial expressions of the person you’re saying it to. OK, this is too vague. Here are my two cases:

Case 1: The Family Friend

I’ve known this guy since we were kids – let’s call him Sam. I can’t say we’ve been friends exactly, but it’s more like and older brother/younger brother relationship, with myself being the older brother. He’s gone through some tough times in his life. Watched his dad die. Mom was an alcoholic (she’s better now – sober for 10 years). I don’t think it would be an understatement to say that due to these things, he’s poorly socialized. The whole thing started when a family member (not me) put Sam in touch with a politically connected guy in order to get him a job with a gubernatorial candidate. He was going to be the driver for said candidate – pretty decent gig. The problem started because he blew the interview and they never called him back. Not one to be deterred or to pick up on the obvious brush off, Sam kept calling them. And calling them. And using *70 to block his caller ID so they wouldn’t know it was him calling. It got to the point where the politically connected guy (he and I are friends) called me and asked me to intervene. Basically, they wanted this guy to stop calling. His behavior was alarming them. Travis Bickle got mentioned. So I called Sam and told him, as nicely as possible, that he needed to stop calling them – and he did.

Fast forward one year and I find out that Sam is mad at me because he thought I was the one who screwed up his job opportunity. So I sent him an email apologizing and saying that I probably could have handled the situation better, but he needed to understand that his behavior was scaring them and that he needed to back off. He wrote right back and thanked me for writing, but said he was mad at me because he thought I should have done a better job defending him and his character. At this point, I got pissed. So I wrote back (stupid, stupid email):

Were you younger, then I would agree with you. My role would be to act as your defender. However, you're a man now and have been for years. My role, as I see it, is to try to help you. I'm not going to defend you when your behavior doesn't warrant it. Obsessively calling people, not leaving messages, calling back and using *70 to block your caller ID is stalker behavior.

The reality is that you're a 27-year-old man who can't hold down a job, has never had a steady girlfriend, and lives with his mother. The only constant in your life is you. You can choose to continue to believe that other people are the problem. Until you decide that the problem might be with you, then you are correct: no book can help you.

The book I was referring to was “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, which I had given him after the incident. This caused a huge shit storm with threats of violence on his part. Needless to say, the relationship is irreparably damaged.

Would I have said those things in a face-to-face conversation? I don’t know. I think so, but maybe I would have picked up on something and tempered my approach. It’s simply too easy to put it in an email.

Case 2: The Political Friend

I’ve known this guy for about 5 years – let’s call him Tom. Tom and I like to argue about politics and religion. The discussions get pretty heated at times and aren’t always the most civil. I moved to another city a couple years ago, so we’ve had most of our exchanges over the phone and email. I really love this guy: he’s the kindest, most big-hearted guy around. But he also has a terrible temper. He once kicked his own brother out of his apartment at 2:00 a.m. over an argument about religion. I know this about him and I’ve always tried to temper my discussions with this knowledge. Easier to do in person than over email. The strange thing about Tom is that he’s a rabid atheist and a rabid Republican. It’s a weird mix, but one of the things I found so compelling about him.

Earlier this month, I sent him an email about Sarah Palin. Basically, Palin scares the utter fuck out of me. She’s like the female version of Martin Sheen’s character in “The Dead Zone”. Because Tom is such a rabid atheist, I wondered what his take on Palin was. When she was asked if she believes in the End of Days scenario she said, “Yes, I think I will see Jesus come back to earth in my lifetime.” I wondered what Tom’s take on this was. We exchanged a few emails of increasing intensity. Two other things you should know about Tom: he likes to use drugs and his best friend is a prostitute. The final salvo on my part was this:

My main point was the hijacking of the Republican Party by the religious right. It sickens me and, I think, it ought to make you furious. These evil "christian" fuckers would happily lock you in jail and stone [your friend] in the town square. Shit, at least you could count on the Republicans to show some fiscal responsibility, but that seems to have gone out the door too. I'm really angry at the Republican party. I think they've betrayed their Lincoln and Goldwater roots.

I think that pissed him off. He called me a racist because I had said previously that I thought it would be good for the country to have a black man as a president. Tom ended his email back to me with this:

Remember, you started this bullshit with your shivering fear of Sarah Palin. Oooooh, she's scary. Well you scare me, man. The conversation we had that morning where you believe in the afterlife is the scariest fucking thing I've ever heard.

Anyway, put me on your spam list. I'm putting you on mine as soon as I hit send. Good Luck with Eternity. I hope there's Universal Health Care up there.

And that was the end. He’s refused to take my calls or answer any of my emails.

So, what’s the point of all this? Is email to blame for these two destroyed relationships? I think it is. It’s simply too easy to say something that you wouldn’t in person. It’s too easy to get all worked up and hit the send key. But email also destroyed the phone as a conduit for communication. Both these guys have refused to take any of my calls. And the strange thing about it is I was calling to apologize.

5 comments:

Russell said...

Pretty messed up man, I know what you mean... its way too easy to 'say what you mean' in an e-mail when if fact you probably wouldn't have done so in person. I've had discussions that have gone on like this before over IM or e-mail with others and sometimes on occasion with my wife... not a good thing at all.

Myke Cameron said...

I agree that e-mail (and various other forms of online text communication) thoroughly insulate you to the point where its easy to forget about the effects what you are saying might have on the receiving party. This is especially true with long e-mails, where you might have changed the second half when the first half didn't go over so well, had you delivered the message in person or at least with real-time responses from the other party. I've definitely had this happen to me with people I care about, I've even trashed relationships permanently this way.

However, I think what it comes down to is not being able to say what you mean (or want to say), but being able to organize your thoughts and then look them over. Any e-mail I send that is confrontational or addresses some sort of touchy issue or argument is carefully proofread before sent. I have a tendency to blurt out hurtful or antagonistic things in person, and I think that I have probably damage controlled a LOT of situations by being able to proof read and think about my response in an argument. Had it happened in person, I might have said something inflammatory out of anger and just made things worse.

Pastor Geek said...

Obviously it would be better if I said this to you face to face but ... Can we get back to dissecting Corporate America now? (Who hasn't bungled an email exchange or two?)

ruth holladay said...

But this is corporate America, guys. Jobs have been lost and work relationships destroyed because of workplace email. Ever hear the one about the guy who called his bosses corporate c---s----- in print in email? He did not last long (altho he left laughing). Or the insulting/scathing/hurtful emails written about a boss, accidentally sent to the boss instead of a buddy, in classic Freudian slip fashion. IT Director's point is well taken: ink stains. It is permanent, without inflection, nuance or facial expression. And it can really cause indelible problems when it attempts to substitute for thoughtful conversation. No doubt, there are volumes written about this in HR manuals somewhere...

Matt Joyce said...

[Email]
One the one hand it gives you the opportunity to craft well constructed prose, and on the other take away the feedback loop of body language.