Urban Dictionary : A flame war is a heated argument between two individuals, that results in those involved posting personal attacks on each other during or instead of debating the topic at hand.
Technology has transformed the nature of communication. Gone are the days when a letter had to be written, put in an envelope, a stamp attached and then taken to the mail box. Most of us can send emails, Facebook messages, DMs and post on blogs and discussion networks in a heart beat. On line platforms can be the perfect location for a rich tapestry of global discussion. Technology can be a fantastic way of making the world a smaller place, or bringing it uncomfortably close. It is also an excellent facilitator for miscommunication, when situations can escalate out of control into what I have just discovered are called flame wars.
Most organisations, forums and platforms have guidelines insisting on respectful discussion and communication. This is because the quality of conversation can be polluted when any communication thread or chain is disrupted, or even hijacked by individuals who would prefer to score points off each other, than discuss the subject in hand.
Set up to fail
Justin Kruger of New York University and his colleague Nicholas Epley, PhD, of the University of Chicago, have published research that helps explain why electronic communication can go adrift. In a study in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 89, No. 5, pages 925-936), testing email usage, they tell us that individuals overestimate both their ability to convey their intended meaning when they send an e-mail, as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages they receive.
The reason for this communication disconnect, the researchers found, is that people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how other people will interpret them. As e-mail has become more prevalent, perhaps even the preferred form of written communication, Epley tell us ” the opportunities for misunderstanding have increased” .
So apparently we only have a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. “People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they ‘hear’ the tone they intend in their head as they write,” Epley suggested. At the same time, those reading messages unconsciously interpret them based on their current mood, stereotypes and expectations. Email senders predicted a 78% success rate for their emails to be correctly interpreted when in fact the result was 56% correct interpretation.
Annabel Kaye of Irenicon told me ” I am finding that many forums are showing an increase in flame mail and unpleasantness. Apart from the usual license that people seem to assume in cyberworld (I guess they think no-one knows where they live) I am experiencing an upturn in over reaction and unpleasant comments on the web generally.
My thinking is that this is due to a lot of anxiety in the world not only about economics, but also about political and personal instability, that means that people are not assuming that they didn’t understand, but assuming they did and going for it! Cultural and linguistic misunderstandings abound at the best of times and this is not the best of times. Dogs on a lead bark more than those off a lead – so individuals who feel constrained are often more difficult to deal with than those who do not!
Most people unwittingly find themselves in antagonistic situations, only realising that their ” hot ” buttons have been pushed, whether by mail, text, tweet or any other form of electronic communication, after the event. Oftentimes, they feel acutely embarrassed at having allowed themselves to have been sucked in. Others (known as flamers) deliberately create those situations.
What to do?
So if you are engaged in an online exchange, whether in a professional workplace email interaction or via any other media, here are some points to consider:
- How will your message be perceived by the recipient?
- Examine your motivation. Do you want to communicate or win?
- What outcome do you want? To persuade or coerce? Do you want to be right or effective?
- Have you made wise vocabulary choices? Are you using loaded emotive language and sending “should”/” need ” “always/must’ messages
- Are you being polite or insulting and provocative?
- If you are angered or even mildly irritated by the sender, wait for 24 hours before hitting your own send button. Edit carefully before sending it again. What internal “hot” buttons have been pushed?
- Look at the length. Many valid comments get lost in ” white noise”. Do you want to be heard or to vent? Pare it down by 50%
- Remember your cyber footprint. Anything written in temper will be recorded on some hard disk, somewhere and might end up being searchable – even after its has been deleted.
Cyber bullying moves into totally different territory, when professional advice should be sought if it persists. Cyber bullies perversely send flame mail expressly designed to provoke and enrage and delight in deliberately generating a reaction. In Internet slang, this person is known as a ” troll “, someone who engages in inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online situation, with the specific intention of disrupting normal on-topic discussion to provoke an emotional response. It is a form of modern-day exhibitionism and attention seeking. The only response is – “do not feed the trolls”.
But whether on-line or in person , in the words of Dr. Laurence J. Peter ,“When you are angry – you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” There is simply no substitute for constructive communication.