Toxic email


A colleague of mine was once accused of insulting a woman and ridiculing her work.  The woman in question was new to the organisation, a bit of an unknown quantity.  She could have ruined his career in that meeting.  The default reaction was “Oh, I didn’t realise he was such a male chauvinistic pig.”

When she made her accusation he checked his file and to his relief he had a printed copy of the email that she claimed was insulting and ridiculing.  He was able to read it out to the room to demonstrate that it was a professional and businesslike enquiry.  In response she said, “it is not the content that is insulting, it is the tone of voice“.

Emails do have a tone of voice.  However the tone of voice of the sender may not match the tone of voice as interpreted by the receiver.  A funny comment may come across as an insult.  A sarcastic comment may be interpreted as stupidity.  In the business world it is dangerous to use email for anything but the most neutrally phrased and factual communications.

If you want to crack a joke, be ironic, be angry, sad, pitiful or communicate any “tone” in your communication then either say it face to face or pick up the phone.

If you send an email and get back what looks like an angry or hurt reply, do not engage in an email conversation.  Immediately pick up the phone and speak to the person.  Continued emails are just likely to make the situation worse, because your “reasonable” tone of voice is being misinterpreted by the other person.  They may hear you as shouting, or as being dismissive, or plain rude.

Never, never, never engage in a flame war at work.  If you feel you have been flamed then take it to your boss and discuss a strategy.

Most important of all, make sure your email does not default to “reply to all” on emails.  It is bad enough to have a person to person misinterpretation, but when it goes company-wide it can be devastating.

So, what happened to my colleague?  Well, he survived his encounter with this strange and toxic lady because he had the paperwork to hand.  She did not last for more than one or two months before a pattern of aberrant behaviour ensured that she was let go before her probation was served.  It was a salutary lesson for all of us.  Mad people can be quite convincing until you get to know that they are mad.


The Rock in the Sea; by Archibald MacLeish


Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
And turning, we had half discerned
Before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
The bird aloft there, did not mean?—
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!

Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
Tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
Thundering in the water cave—
Thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
And climbed the coral of that iron cliff
And found what only in our hearts we’d heard—
The silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
That opened, red as blood, to shriek
And clamor in that world of stone,
No voice to answer but its own.

What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
Found in the bird its metaphor?