Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Say It to My Face

Jeff Harrison's recent post about a mutation of the New York Times rule by legal academics reflects frustration with faculty colleagues who exploit the difference between oral and written communication to achieve a kind of of plausible deniability. Jeff wonders whether the proliferation of e-mail as a mode of communication explains an adaptation of the New York Times rule that he coins the "e-mail fifth amendment." A colleague will decline to confirm in an e-mail something he or she has said orally, to achieve a desired political outcome without bearing the reputational cost.

I'm not surprised that Jeff Harrison would take issue with this kind of hypocriscy. It's especially troubling behavior for lawyers. With certain exceptions that Jeff Lipshaw has noted, everything a lawyer says, writes, or does is "on the record," whether it shows up in the New York Times, or on the refrigerator door in the coffee room. (The New York Times rule has been attributed to Edward Bennett Williams who unlike most law faculty did work interesting enough for the New York Times to care about).

I see another effect e-mail has had on faculty discourse that runs in the reverse direction. Some faculty members use e-mail to achieved a desired political outcome without bearing the cost of a personal, face to face communication. For these faculty, apparently, deniability isn't important. As teenagers apparently know, e-mail (now eclipsed by IM and texting) allows for virtual personal interaction at a fraction of the discomfort and risk of real personal interaction. It's faster, cheaper and easier to send an e-mail loaded with sanctimonious rhetoric "to the faculty" than to actually attend a faculty meeting, ask for the floor, and deliver the same point to real human colleagues who will no doubt react to the speaker live and in person. If lack of courage explains the "e-mail fifth amendment" Jeff Harrison observes, the same is at work in the use of e-mail as a low cost substitute for the spoken word.

6 Comments:

Blogger Jeff Lipshaw said...

Marie, I COMPLETELY agree with that sentiment. When I was in business, I refused to engage in voicemail or e-mail combat. It's simply too easy to take the chicken route. My rule is: never convey a difficult or negative message by voicemail or e-mail if you care at all about your relationship with the recipient.

5/22/2007 11:25 AM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

I have written a response to Jeff L.'s comment on my NYT "riff" elsewhere but I write here about Marie's post and Jeff L's comment. In theory this makes sense and I agree but it is, I think, a bit more complicated. In many instances of face to face communications one person is preparing an answer and shaking his or her head no before the other can stop speaking. They have hardly "heard" what has been said. Interruptions are common place. The upside of email is that 1) everyone gets an uninterrupted say and 2) there is at least some time to consider an answer -- if you choose to use it. But basically people use what they tend to believe will get them what they want.

5/22/2007 12:37 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5/22/2007 12:37 PM  
Blogger Marie Reilly said...

I'm not sure whether the upside Jeff H identifies for e-mail bears out. Unlike a live communicator, an e-mailer can "speak" without risk of interruption and without having to perceive and deal with his or her listener's contemporaneous reaction. The sender feels in control of his or her experience and delays (and probably heavily discounts) the receiver's reaction.

We are in the course of working out the personal and social consequences of e-mail and other forms of e-communication. I think it is an open and very interesting question whether the capacity to send e-mail to passive mailboxes by a keystroke improves the quality of communication. I wonder if attribute Jeff identifies as an upside of e-mail, the unilaterality of it, has become "the message" in the way Marshall McLuhan famously observed.

5/22/2007 1:12 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Marie: I this very interesting and complicated. I'd be interested in seeing what happens with the research. I can see it from different perspectives. For example, does being cowardly, soft spoken, prone to pauses while speaking mean the message delivered is somehow less worthwhile than it would be had it been delivered by somesome with more stomach for combat? It the value of what someone has to say related to how shy or bold they are? Some people feel in control in face to face because they are loud and quick. In fact, loud, quick and interruping people may impose a cost that is hard for the person with the better substantive argument to overcome. One person's combat is another person's day to day discourse. Maybe email levels out the non substantive elements of discourse. This is not to suggest that there are not new problems email gives rise to.

I am not sure, by the way, that this is about email or about about oral as opposed written communications. Still I can think of a situation in which I totally agree that face to face is the only thing that works.

One thing I see happen repeatedly is the use of the general memo when the problems are specific. Take any of your usual faculty activities -- missing class and not making it up, dismissing class before the holiday, etc. A handful of people do it and administrators, knowing who they are, then send out general memos -- email or hard -- "reminding" the entire faculty of the policy because they do not want to sit down face to face and say "this is unprofessional and sets an bad example." The responsive ones are the ones who do not break the rules and the rule breakers ignore it and will continue to do so unless it is face to face.

5/22/2007 2:43 PM  
Blogger Jeff Harrison said...

Actually, I think I can state my question far more concisely: Should the delivery of information be determined by the willingness or the communicator to bear "the cost of personal face to face communication."? I hate the snipers and cheap shot artists as much as anyone but I am honestly not sure the willingness or lack of willingness to be combative in a face to face interaction should play a role.

5/22/2007 3:37 PM  

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