Someone at work sends you an email that you aren’t quite sure how to interpret. Maybe the phrasing is ambiguous, maybe it uses a term with different meanings, or maybe there just isn’t enough context to decide what’s being said. It seems weirdly hostile, but you don’t know why there would be hostility. What do you do?
You could ignore it, of course. But sometimes that isn’t an option, whether because of a deadline, high stakes, or just the sheer oddness of the message.
You could reply in kind, and thereby set in motion a chain reaction of misunderstandings that’s virtually guaranteed to bring out the worst in everybody. Imagine a snippier version of “Three’s Company,” in which misinterpretations pile onto each other until the entire edifice collapses in a pile of hurt feelings.
You could assume the worst, and gird for battle. Depending on locale and temperament, maybe you rally the troops while you’re at it. Why settle for peace when there’s a bracing fight to be had?
Or you could try to actually solve the problem. The first step in doing that, assuming that the workplace isn’t entirely nuts, is to switch venues. Talk to the person, in person. Ask about the message, and the intended meaning. Get away from email, and have an actual conversation. (In a pinch, even a phone call is better than nothing, but face-to-face is the best by far.)
I suspect that academics may be particularly susceptible to email battles, given their hyperliteracy. They’re relatively good at writing -- make obligatory “jargon” joke here -- and often quick to take umbrage at perceived slights. (Given that status, rather than money, is often the coin of the realm, slights hurt more.) Email battles allow for the attempt at the perfect zinger, and it’s easier to be really nasty when you aren’t actually looking the person in the eye.
Which is why you need to look the person in the eye.
It’s harder to demonize the flesh-and-blood human being right in front of you. And it’s much easier to convey nuances when body language and facial expressions are there to color the words. Sometimes a hesitation or a sidelong glance can tell you far more than the words that follow it.
Even interruptions can help. When someone starts a chain of “this, and then this, and then THIS!!!,” it can be helpful to ask how he got from step one to step two. Frequently, what looks obvious from one angle is revealed to be illusory when some new facts are shared. “You denied my travel request, but approved hers! You’re obviously biased!” If you know, in that case, that one travel request had been written into an approved grant, and the other missed an application deadline, then suddenly the same fact pattern leads to a very different conclusion. But without a discussion, that won’t come to light.
A few times over the last year, the email system has gone down for a day or more. Oddly, those were some of my better days at work. People actually talked to each other.