Steering Clear of Email Road Rage

“Never drive angry,” your parents may have once told you as you nervously gripped the steering wheel of some gigantic station wagon. “You’ll get into an accident!”

What about accidents on the information superhighway? There are some highly volatile souls out there who shouldn’t be gripping a computer mouse, let alone a steering wheel. High emotions mixed with the Net’s communicative potency can lead to several misfortunes, both personal and professional. People can be offended, careers endangered, reputations soiled.

Examining Email Road Rage

B2Btalk.org, a nonprofit forum for business-to-business (B2B) marketers, had experienced a technical glitch with its Internet service provider, causing an electronic newsletter to be sent out multiple times to the same addresses. The ensuing complaints not only reflected frustration, they propagated it as well, for some subscribers had hit the Reply to All button, inundating almost everyone on the listserv with their complaints.

Is it surprising that the more uncivilized complaints came from professionals in the business world?

Let’s start by looking at the least hostile complaint that B2Btalk received via email.

    I’ve now received EIGHT newsletters. STOP sending them.

Note the capital letters. This is perceived as shouting over email. Still, this letter is not inappropriate and served its purpose of informing B2Btalk of the extent of the malfunction. It is understandably impatient and right to the point. Also, notice that there’s no commentary on the Webmaster’s personal ability or any profanity. Well done, loyal subscriber.

And now, here is an example of a letter that crossed the line by indulging in rampant emotion.

    Why are you doing this? I’ve received this [censored] newsletter six [censored] times. For the love of God, take my address off of your list RIGHT NOW…

This person didn’t keep things in perspective. You’d think he’d been receiving propaganda from some cult trolling for recruits. Remember, it’s an e-newsletter that this person opted in to receive — this is not exactly the sort of earth-shattering crisis that warrants hysteria.

None of those subscribers would say those things in a face-to-face meeting. Email road rage, therefore, is largely a function of anonymity. Since no one knows who is behind the screen name, complainers assume they can rant and rave without consequence.

But what if the angry complaint of a business professional were read by a boss or a client or a prospective customer? It’s more possible than you think. If an opinion is in writing, it is as if it were carved in stone. And once an emailed opinion is in the hands of a concerned party, it can be forwarded anywhere.

Furthermore, even if the intention of the email is positive, it can still be perceived as negative; it’s not about what you intended to say, but, rather, what you did say. If you’re big on sarcasm and irony, be aware that these devices do not always come across clearly in email.

Responding With Diplomacy

Obviously, technical glitches are never intentional, yet this is not so apparent to email recipients whose space is invaded. If you’re the sender of a faulty e-newsletter, a well-crafted apology is in order, one that admits fault while reinforcing a competent image.

B2Btalk.org’s follow-up apology letter put customer service into overdrive. In addition, the apology letter “was carefully crafted and targeted to select members who had voiced a complaint,” says Joe Schubert, president of Schubert Communications (where I work), founder of B2Btalk. “It conveyed our distress, offering a brief technical explanation and an earnest invitation to stay subscribed. It was our key to averting a PR disaster.”

Email is ideal for the business world because it is fast, efficient, and seems to encourage brevity, yet it has only been in widespread use for less than a decade. Technical glitches and personal mistakes are bound to happen with any new technology. Professionalism requires patience.

In addition, people are unable to perceive nuance or read body language over the Net, making it a perfect vehicle for misunderstanding. So, just as you would watch the road while driving, watch your language and tone over email. Rage is contagious. Be considerate and spread something nice!

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