Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A scientific explanation for email "nastygrams"

Today's New York Times posits a scientific explanation for the difference in behavior of those who are civil in face-to-face encounters but brutally venomous in email or instant messaging exchanges. In Flame First, Think Later, New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior, Daniel Goleman (of Social Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence fame) explains that, in the absence of visual social cues, our brains no longer have that "uh-oh" control that keeps us from inadvertently offending the person with whom we're electronically communicating. As Goleman puts it:

The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.

This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.

That lack of an immediate visual reaction to an email could explain innocent miscues, such as typing "I resent that email" and then wondering why the other party is upset, when all you meant was that you re-sent the email. It could also explain why people use smiley faces, the word "grin" in brackets, and other ways of showing that the writer does not intend to offend.

What of those nastygram senders, though, who do want to offend? Unlike Oscar Wilde's famous statement that "[a] gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feelings unintentionally," these nastygrammers aren't necessarily gentlepersons. Instead, they seem to want to stir up discontent in a public forum. I don't want nastygrammers to use the social neuroscience excuse ("the lack of visual cues made me do it"), so how does a community otherwise prevail on a nastygrammer to cease and desist? Ignoring the emails might work, or it might escalate the nastygrams in the hope of getting some reaction. Any suggestions?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think communities can, and indeed must, control serious flaming. If they don't, the community is left with obnoxious and insensitive members when the friendly, helpful ones leave. Diligent but friendly moderation is one key to keeping communities friendly. Not only can the mods eliminate public flames, they can also educate new members about community standards and expectations. I liked Goleman's article too - a few more thoughts are here: You're OK, Flaming is Not OK.

2/20/2007 2:02 PM  
Blogger Susan Dunn, M.A. said...

One important component of emotional intelligence is putting a "pause" between impulse and response. Without the pause, it's called "reaction." That is, it may be purely "emotional", without any "thought" put into it. And in most social interchange, being reactive isn't very bright.

People are also a lot "braver" behind the anonymity of an email and say things in emails they would never have the nerve to say to the person in person.

And that's not a bad thing.

Because of that lack of social input this article talks about, we can vent, nadder on ... it's like boring someone. Without the social cues, how do you know for sure? Let's face it. In an email, we are all "clueless."

Intentionality is another component of EQ, i.e., thinking about what you INTEND (to have happen, to accomplish, to create) when you do something. If someone INTENDS to inflame others by their rhetoric, why are they in the group? There used to be a site for ranting and raving (www.zinos.com), in which case, go for it. Otherwise, emotional intelligence and etiquette are what keep us from annoying one another, enraging others, inciting them, getting on other people's nerves and, it should be noted, making fools out of ourselves and/or saying things we later regret.

Flaming is like using bad grammar. It reveals a lot about the person who does it.

Susan Dunn, Emotional Intelligence Coach and Consultant

2/20/2007 11:41 PM  

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