Apologies To Freud

The psychopathology of everyday life

"Is this E-Mail Rude?"

Ask yourself, "exactly who's angry at whom?"

Today's tweens know how to navigate technology better than anyone.

Say you open a message that has just hit your "in" box.  You read it, digest it, and do a double take. It seems like you just got dissed.  So you wonder: did this message say what I think it did?  Is this a subtle put down? Did it sound aggressive and hostile, or did I take it the wrong way? 

Sometimes it's hard to tell anything about the intent of the sender. Electronic communications are nothing, if not ambiguous.  They are really just a bunch of letters on a blackberry, smart phone, or moniter that make up a neutral communication.  Or are they?

Lisa, 37 and a mother of three, holds a Master's Degree in Special Education.  When she recently contacted an organization in her hometown about volunteering with local families and children, she was told to e-mail the organization's Director of Operations.  In her message, Lisa referred to her credentials, and noted a special training course she had completed.  She concluded that given her areas of "specialty and expertise," she felt she could contribute, and she expressed an interest in volunteering with children.  The Director's response shocked her:  "What do you think you have expertise in?" 

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Lisa was dumbfounded.  Was this person being hostile? Didn't her years of teaching experience and training speak for themselves?  Had she misread the text of the e-mail? Given her education and background, wasn't she fit to volunteer?  Lisa wrote back that she had worked with children at several schools over the past ten years.  "Though I wanted to let this woman have it, I decided to be polite.  I didn't want to burn a bridge."

Turns out, Lisa was angry at the Director, whom she felt to be dismissive and unfriendly.  But anger is uncomfortable for Lisa, and so she was confused about who was angry at whom.  It took her a minute to decide that the bad feelings were hers.  And once she figured this out, she chose to take the high road and not to be confrontational with someone she barely knew. 

Lisa's experience got me thinking about other types of ambiguous messages.  For example, when someone tells you to "have a nice day" after you've just had a tense or unpleasant exchange, is it a sarcastic kiss off, or a kind and thoughtful wish?  Only the sender really knows.  And she or he is not talking--just e-mailing--meaning, it's up to the recipient to decide how to take it.

Technological and electronic messages can be confusing.  There are no social cues to read, and no intonations to guide you, just characters on a screen.  So, what's a Luddite to do?

Given kids' exposure to and facility with technology these days, most know more about how to navigate the outside world than their adult counterparts.  So, I asked a few tweens what they would advise if they opened an e-mail that seemed, well, somewhat dicey, in its ambiguity.  Here's what they told me:

--You have a choice: you can write back and keep the communication going, or stop talking.  If you don't answer you will possibly offend the sender  (good point; wish I had thought of it). 

--What you chose has something to do with the way you handle anger, as well as what you think about relationships.  If you are easily annoyed, and decide to write an angry message, it can backfire on you.  What if the sender had no ill intent? (another good point; these kids have a future in diplomacy... or clinical psychology).

--You can just pause: After you feel the situation out, you have more choices.  You can wait and see how future communications go. Or you could just decide not to get provoked, and be nice.   

As I began to mull over all of these approaches, noting that young girls seem intent on avoiding confrontation, a wise eleven year old offered the following advice: "It's just a stupid e-mail!  It's not like it's of the magnitude of the royal wedding or something! Try not to let it bother you--e-mails are only a bunch of words." 

Her point: words only have power over you if you let them--it's up to you to decide how to take it all in, and whether to react, if at all.  Makes sense to me.  Who in their right mind would choose to challenge the teachings of a pre-adolescent girl?

 

 

 

Stephanie Newman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, as well as the author of Mad Men on the Couch.

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