All the Rage

Commentary on the scientific study of anger

Avoiding the Angry Email

Why We Should Think Twice Before Firing Off that Rage Filled Message

I am sure most of us have been there at some point. We notice a mistake one of our coworkers made, learn about a frustrating decision made by one of our elected officials, or even find out that a family member didn’t do something they promised, and we fire off an angry email to the culprit without really thinking it through.

I’ve both sent such emails and received them. In fact, as a college professor, I get these sorts of emails from students more than I would like. The typical pattern is that a student gets a bad grade on something or doesn’t agree with a decision I’ve made and quickly fires off an angry email to try and resolve the situation (or sometimes just to complain about it).

These emails all look pretty similar. Typically, they are full of bolded words, the excessive use of capital letters, and lack any sort of salutation. When I get them, it bothers me for several reasons. It’s rude, disrespectful, and makes me feel as though my hard work isn’t appreciated. What’s worse, though, is that sometimes the student is right in his or her criticism or concern but wrong in how he or she expressed it. In other words, the student is making a very valid point but it’s hard to find because it’s hidden behind all those exclamation points.

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This is exactly why we should think twice about sending angry emails. Our position might be absolutely correct but we make it really easy for others to ignore it by being rude. Once you send a hostile email, the exchange stops being about your concern and starts being about your nasty email.

If you have done this, you are certainly not alone. It’s a common mistake and there are all sorts of reasons why electronic communication lends itself to this sort of thing.

Exacerbating Impulsivity. The electronic format worsens impulse control problems because it’s too quick and easy. When I was a student (in the olden days before email), if I wanted to voice a concern to one of my teachers, not only did I have to have a face to face talk, I had to wait to the next class or his or her office hours to have that talk (I suppose I could have used the phone but I don’t think many people did that). That gave me plenty of time to cool off and think about the best way to handle the situation.

With email (and texting, Facebook posts, etc.), you can send your response immediately. This means that you are responding when you are most angry, which influences what you write. You are less rational and less likely to think through the consequences. While that angry email likely does capture what you are really feeling at that moment, it’s probably not expressing that frustration in the most effective way. Consequently, you may fail to get your point across or, worse yet, you may damage your relationship and reputation with the recipient.

Perceived Anonymity. A second issue is that email feels semi-anonymous to people. It’s not anonymous, of course, but the distance between you and the recipient may stop you from censoring yourself. As you are typing the email, you aren’t looking the person in the eye, you aren’t seeing his or her facial expression, or listening to his or her side of the story. If it were a face-to-face conversation, you might notice that he or she is really processing what you are saying and you may come to understand his or her perspective before things get too heated. Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s just harder for most people to say hurtful things to a person’s face. When you can see that what you are saying is hurting or offending them, you are more likely to back off.

Now, by no means am I suggesting that we not voice our concerns or frustration to others. People make mistakes sometimes and, when they do, we have the right to try and address those mistakes. In fact, I want people to voice their frustration... just more effectively.

So, the next time you want to voice a concern to a friend, coworker, family member, elected official, etc., I would encourage you to do the following before you hit send.

  1. Don’t hit send at all. Go talk to the person if you can. Email is sometimes the easy way out. It’s what people rely on when they don’t want to have a real but uncomfortable conversation with someone. Clearly, there are times when email may be the way to go but, if it’s possible to avoid it, it might make sense to do so.
  2. Wait. Emotions are usually short lived. If you can wait it out, your anger will start to dissipate and the email you send will probably be better for it. If you feel you need to do something, go ahead and start writing but don’t send until you’ve had a chance cool off, reread, think it through, and probably rewrite some parts.
  3. Have it read. You may want to ask a friend you trust to read it before you send it. If that person is removed from the situation, he or she might be able to offer some much needed perspective, tell you if it sounds rude, or if it’s unclear.
  4. Be professional. Sometimes, what comes across as rudeness or excessive anger is actually a lack of professionalism (or, worse yet, a combination of both). Treat these emails the way you would treat a letter. Start with some sort of greeting (e.g., Dear Representative…), use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and end with some sort of farewell (e.g., Sincerely or Thanks for your consideration, etc.). This may seem a bit old school to some but, ultimately, it’s just a polite way to communicate with people and will go a long way in taking the edge off.
  5. Be emoticon free. Related to a lack of professionalism, avoid anything that’s designed to show, explicitly, how angry you are. Stay away from frowning faces, all capital letters, extra exclamation points, using bold or colored font, etc. Assuming you are trying to change the person’s mind about something or alert him or her to a problem (see number six below), these sorts of superfluous elements only get in the way of your point.
  6. Ask yourself why you are sending it. Make sure you are aware of the end result you are hoping for. Do you want the make a different decision, rethink a policy, or just to offer an explanation? Regardless, make sure it’s clear to them what you want. Otherwise, it will just feel to him or her like useless venting. If the point is just to vent, it’s probably better not to send it at all and find some other way to deal with your anger.

Ryan Martin, Ph.D. is an anger researcher and the Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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