Friday, January 7, 2011

The downward spiral of email - Part 1

Today, the American Bar Association’s email had a link to an article entitled, “Lawyers Sanctioned for E-Mail Insults, Including ‘Scum Sucking Loser’ Comment.” There is a lot about being a lawyer that I like. This is not on that list. Interestingly, it is this very situation that yoga can help.

How do we get to “Scum Sucking Loser” and “Retard” (in the article)? There are two common culprits - lack of attention and misinterpretation. Of course, they are two sides of the same coin.

People today are busy. Somehow, we live in an age where work can get done faster and more efficiently, and yet, we are busier than ever. There are a lot of reasons for this, but that is not the point of today’s post. When we are this busy, many of us do not take the time to respond; we merely react, and we react based upon our immediate interpretation of an event. In this case, the event is an email. On top of a lack of time, it is all too easy to misinterpret what people say when all we have is a “cold record,” or typed words.

Over the past year, as I have spent more and more time having “conversations” by email and facebook, and other forms of written communication, this issue has arisen for me. It is also something I noticed a lot at the court of appeals. I have heard that as much as 90% of communication is non-verbal. Thus, when we read an email, we put in our own emphasis, our own tone, our own interpretation. This happens even more when we are too busy to consider the other person’s point of view and what they could have meant to say.

Not too long ago, I was emailing with someone I know well, a family member, and we communicate by email, phone, and in person when we are in the same state. In other words, I know her communication style. She wrote something that I interpreted as a jab, but really, it was her own excitement about something. Luckily, I asked. If I had not, I would probably still be upset about the email. And just a few weeks ago, another family member misinterpreted a joke I had posted on facebook, and she responded to it very upset. Luckily, I was able to explain myself, and we worked it out. But these are family members; these are people with whom I choose to work out these misinterpretations.

What about the “opposing” attorney? Do we take the time to reflect then? Or do we just allow the email chain to spiral out of control assuming we can ask for sanctions later? This is where the bigger culprit than time and misinterpretation comes in - anonymity. No matter how well you know the person on the receiving end of the email, you are “anonymous” behind the screen. You can be sure that you are “right,” and the other person is “wrong” because there is no actual interaction.

Yoga gives us the tools to step out of this cycle, not only with tools to help us stop and reflect, but also to stop getting stuck seeing people as “the other” instead of another human being. We can ask, “hey, what did you mean?” If the other person really was trying to be rude and obnoxious, we can stop the chain, respond by ignoring the jab and just replying to the actual issues at stake, and allow the spiral to start going back up.

In the next post, we will look at some different approaches yoga provides to allow us to step away from the downward spiral. In what ways have you found yourself in the email spiral? What tools do you use to stop it? Has it ever ended up before a judge?

Namaste and Blessings!

© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. So true Becca. Sometimes the misinterpretation is on the emotional/psychological/spiritual meaning of the words. I also regularly see examples where the parties take different semantic interpretations; they think they're writing about the same things, but the reality is that the discussion is about two very different things. When the subject is cyber security, these differing interpretations [say, between management and IT] are often the 'holes' through which cyber criminals gan entrance. Namaste!

  2. Good insights. One of the things I've noticed in myself is that my reaction to a written communication can change just by re-reading it the following day. Suddenly, I'm in a different frame of mind, so my interpretations are different.

  3. Exactly, Marti. Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. I almost had a similar situation with my contact in South Korea. After telling her that Heather and I found jobs in Illinois and would not be taking the jobs, she replied back with a less than friendly e-mail. I could see her side of the situation and understand her being upset, but when she accused the two of us of not acting like mature adults, I felt a deep urge to be equally un-civil. Luckily my father-in-law suggested breaking the cycle, as you put it, and addressing the issue rather than the insult. It certainly didn't make our contact feel any better, but it ended the situation and it allowed all involved to preserve their dignity. Reading this post makes me even more certain I did the right thing.

  5. Sean, I'm glad to hear it worked out for you. These are difficult situations, especially when different cultures are involved. You made the right choice. Thanks for sharing.