A paper trail can be useful when you need proof of a purchase, want to save a phone number or address or keep something kind or special someone has written to you. There’s a downside, however. Sometimes, the written word or more likely words that touch on touchy subjects or unclarified plans may lead to misunderstandings, hard feelings and worse—even the end of a friendship or relationship. It’s hard to take back words once put down on paper or in an email when written with an angry edge--or an edge that’s interpreted that way.
When two people speak on the phone or especially in person, there is room to discuss on the spot an issue, read body language, and see facial expressions. Not so with paper. But in all honesty, many of us deliberately avoid making a call because we want to seek refuge behind our cyber screens. It’s a one way conversation, non confrontational and we think less anger will come through. Dashing off words even upset ones rather than dealing with a topic live and in the present now seems so much easier. It’s not!
This happened to Barbara recently when a long-ago acquaintance she remet asked if she wanted “company” since the friend was visiting her town for a class. Barbara—in her quick enthusiastic style—said “of course” or something to that effect. She recalls going on to explain—she thought well—that it was great her friend was coming for dinner since Barbara was having company--her one daughter, son-in-law, two little grandsons, and aging mom all would be visiting. The friend, however, thought “company” meant an overnight visit. And when she showed up at their door step with suitcase in hand, Barbara and her beau had to awkwardly explain there was no room for another overnight guest, not even on a couch. The friend left the house in what seemed to Barbara a huff.
Apologies were shared all around, but Barbara was terribly embarrassed about coming across as inhospitable. All could have been dealt with better if they had spoken live before arrival regarding expectations and exactly what being “company” meant. Barbara accepts full responsibility. If there’s another similar request, Barbara certainly will know to suggest dinner but not an overnight stay unless she has room. Or at least, she’ll confirm the plans the day of ….
And there are so many other cases when emails—and also texts—should be reread, slept on, or DELETED! Barbara has received some of late from an angry relative, and when they come fast, furiously and so often and are filled with words like “deplorable” (that channel one of Hillary’s mistakes) they become almost the equivalent of daggers or harassment. Take your pick. She has found it best not to respond at this juncture; maybe, sometime if the person can cool down.
Margaret has had similar experiences, including some email exchanges with a friend who decided she no longer wanted to be friends. Margaret emailed the woman several times more and still didn’t get a response. She finally picked up the phone, but to no avail. She wrote a letter. An email from the woman popped up on her screen shortly afterward that misconstrued Margaret’s written message of friendship. What she learned is that putting something in writing doesn’t always convey the right context such as intonation, or even sentiment and, in this case, it seemed prudent to let go of the relationship.
Here are 10 rules we’ve come up with to deal with difficult situations or ones that could become complicated due to communication by email or text:
- Weigh calling rather than writing.
- If calling doesn’t work, think carefully about what you want to say. Consider how to carefully craft your message. Leave the emotion behind and try to state the facts as you remember them.
- If you’re nervous about consequences, do a first draft of what you want to send and save.
- Sleep on it.
- Reread what you wrote the next morning; reread several times and try to pick up on any words that might be misconstrued. Think: How would I react if I received this email?
- Consider having a friend read what you wrote before you hit SEND!
- If once the email or text has been received and its message doesn’t go over well for any reason—you receive back any angry response or hear nothing at all, you may want to find out why.
- Broach that possibility in a live conversation; no more emails.
- Don’t get defensive, listen and learn. Be contrite if you hurt the other person’s feelings.
- Maybe, you can each apologize or at least resolve the matter in some mature manner.
If you opt to use the written rather than spoken word to communicate, take your time to think about what you’re saying, play with it, and shape it before sending.