Be careful what you write...

There’s an excellent quote floating around out there that you should never write anything on the internet that you wouldn’t hand write on a piece of paper, sign it, and hand to your worst enemy. Once you’ve “put something in writing,” it becomes a powerful tool that can be interpreted and misinterpreted in all kinds of ways you might not intend at the time. I’m not talking about rude YouTube comments or other semi-anonymous online places (although I wish people would act more reasonably in those communities as well). Specifically, I’m talking about what you write as a student in your emails, texts, and facebook messages to the other people in your life.

When I was an undergraduate, I was counseled to never, ever have an argument in writing. This is somewhat related to the Theory of Relentless Positivity: that you want the people you are working with and surrounded by to have confidence in you. But this advice goes deeper. You never, ever want to hand someone the ammunition of your own words to use against you.

This seems relatively straightforward. But I see people make this mistake all the time. 

There are simple steps you can take to not fall victim to an email-related conflict:

  • Never publish that you “hate” a professor (or boss/coworker/fellow group member, etc).
  • Never email someone rude or threatening things.
  • Never resolve roommate conflicts via text or email.
  • Never write angry emails.

May I repeat that? Never write angry emails.

 Polite emails only, please. All others will be crushed (alongside non-bikers parking near this pole in Istanbull). Oh the hyperbole!

Polite emails only, please. All others will be crushed (alongside non-bikers parking near this pole in Istanbull). Oh the hyperbole!

We have all been in situations that have gone down wrong online. And we all know that tone is so important to proper communication, particularly in situations of stress or frustration. The difference between sarcasm and actual aggression can be difficult to determine via text message, particularly if that message is then isolated and put online.

An angry email is fuel for the other side’s cause. By maintaining a professional and reasonable tone at all times online, you have a much better chance of a) getting your way in the first place, and b) gaining support and sympathy should things get unpleasant.

I had a bad situation develop once in my undergraduate life due to a strongly worded email. I won’t go into details here (but might at some later date if people are interested… it does illustrate the point nicely), it reinforced the lesson that the crucial thing is not "winning" or being “right” in a conflict, but in how you are perceived. Words matter.

I think back on this situation on almost a daily basis. It has come to mind when dealing co-workers, friends, members of group projects, and other faculty and staff members. There have been emails I really wanted to send, but just managed to hold back the sarcasm, rude comment, or even the strongly worded statement that could be interpreted as aggressive.

Conflict is part of life. Email is not the ideal place to work things out.

If you are on the receiving end of an email that is over-the-top, aggressive, or angry, don’t respond with the same tone. Keep the email—you might want it later. Write back in the most calm and reasonable tone you can manage. Assume that there has been a misunderstanding or that the conflict can be resolved with some calm conversation and rational problem-solving.

Another great tactic if someone writes a particularly aggressive email is to just go “radio silent” for a while. Don’t respond. Give it three hours. This gives you time to cool down, and them to see the error of their ways (you hope).

I recently dealt with a conflict with a roommate by responding to an email I perceived as overly aggressive by writing simply “When you get a chance I would like to discuss this plan with you.” Within the next three hours, and long before I had a chance to get home for the “discussion,” I had gotten several emails with explanations and an alternative suggested plan.

It probably wouldn’t work that well every time, but at least some of the time a strategy like this will mean that by the time you can have a face-to-face conversation, at least some of the conflict would have dissipated.

Here’s my boiled-down basic set of suggestions for arguments happening over email:

  • Never write anything you wouldn’t want to appear in the school newspaper
  • Usually assume that the person means their words in the very kindest possible sense… until proven otherwise
  • Always take the stance that things can be worked out
  • Always save full email threads, particularly if the other party is being rude or aggressive
  • Always write to confirm things that have been agreed to over the phone or in person

That last point is huge. Just as you don’t want the bad stuff in writing, you want the good stuff and the agreements to be clearly written down. Get it written, sent, and confirmed.

And be polite. The world has far more than its fair share of rude people already.


Have you ever dealt with a conflict over email? Do you have an email disaster story to share? Strategies for online conflict resolution that have worked well for you? Please share here!