flame wars

Flame Wars – The downside of e-communication

Definition of flame wars

Urban Dictionary : A flame war is a heated argument between two individuals, that results in those involved posting personal attacks on each other during or instead of debating the topic at hand.

Flame mail

Technology has transformed the nature of communication. Gone are the days when a letter had to be written, put in an envelope, a stamp attached and then taken to the mail box. Most of us can send emails, Facebook messages, DMs and post on blogs and discussion networks in a heart beat. On line platforms can be the perfect location for a rich tapestry of global discussion. Technology can be a fantastic way of making the world a smaller place, or bringing it uncomfortably close. It is also an excellent facilitator for miscommunication, when situations can escalate out of control into what I have just discovered are called flame wars.

Most organisations, forums and platforms have guidelines insisting on respectful discussion and communication. This is because the quality of conversation can be polluted when any communication thread or chain is disrupted, or even hijacked by individuals who would prefer to score points off each other, than discuss the subject in hand.

Set up to fail

Justin Kruger of New York University and his colleague Nicholas Epley, PhD, of the University of Chicago, have published research that helps explain why electronic communication can go adrift. In a study in the December Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 89, No. 5, pages 925-936), testing email usage, they tell us that individuals overestimate both their ability to convey their intended meaning when they send an e-mail, as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages they receive.

The reason for this communication disconnect, the researchers found, is that people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how other people will interpret them. As e-mail has become more prevalent, perhaps even the preferred form of written communication, Epley tell us ” the opportunities for misunderstanding have increased” .

So apparently we only have a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. “People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they ‘hear’ the tone they intend in their head as they write,” Epley suggested. At the same time, those reading messages unconsciously interpret them based on their current mood, stereotypes and expectations. Email senders predicted a 78% success rate for their emails to be correctly interpreted when in fact the result was 56% correct interpretation.

Increasing trend

Annabel Kaye of Irenicon told me ” I am finding that many forums are showing an increase in flame wars and unpleasantness. Apart from the usual licence that people seem to assume in cyberworld (I guess they think no-one knows where they live) I am experiencing an upturn in over-reaction and unpleasant comments online generally.

My thinking is that this is due to a lot of anxiety in the world not only about economics, but also about political and personal instability, that means that people are not assuming that they didn’t understand, but assuming they did and going for it! Cultural and linguistic misunderstandings abound at the best of times and this is not the best of times. Dogs on a lead bark more than those off a lead – so individuals who feel constrained are often more difficult to deal with than those who do not!

Most people unwittingly find themselves in antagonistic situations, only realising that their ” hot ” buttons have been pushed, whether by mail, text, tweet or any other form of electronic communication, after the event. Oftentimes, they feel acutely embarrassed at having allowed themselves to have been sucked in. Others (known as flamers) deliberately create those situations.

What to do?

So if you are engaged in an online exchange, whether in a professional workplace email interaction or via any other media, here are some points to consider:

  •  How will your message be perceived by the recipient?
  •  Examine your motivation. Do you want to communicate or win?
  • What outcome do you want? To persuade or coerce? Do you want to be right or effective?
  • Have you made wise vocabulary choices? Are you using loaded emotive language and sending “should”/” need ” “always/must’ messages
  •  Are you being polite or insulting and provocative?
  • If you are angered or even mildly irritated by the sender, wait for 24 hours before hitting your own send button. Edit carefully before sending it again. What internal “hot” buttons have been pushed?
  • Look at the length. Many valid comments get lost in ” white noise”. Do you want to be heard or to vent? Pare it down by 50%
  • Remember your cyber footprint. Anything written in temper will be recorded on some hard disk, somewhere and might end up being searchable – even after its has been deleted.

Cyber bullying

Cyber bullying moves into totally different territory, when professional advice should be sought if it persists. Cyber bullies perversely send flame mail expressly designed to provoke and enrage and delight in deliberately generating a reaction. In Internet slang, this person is known as a ” troll,” someone who engages in inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online situation, with the specific intention of disrupting normal on-topic discussion to provoke an emotional response. It is a form of modern-day narcissistic exhibitionism and attention seeking. The only response is – “do not feed the trolls”.

Platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook offer possibilities report and block. Do that immediately. If you see it happening to someone else also report the issue. Bystander inactivity is part of the problem.

But whether on-line or in person , in the words of Dr. Laurence J. Peter ,“When you are angry – you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” There is simply no substitute for constructive communication.

Have you experienced bullying and want to know how to deal with it  – get in touch NOW


14 thoughts on “Flame Wars – The downside of e-communication

  1. Lawrence "Larry" Berezin

    Excellent post on a timely and important challenge we all face in our cyber communications. A simple press of the send button, can undo years of friendship or an important business relationship. I especially liked your “What to do” and “Cyber Bullying” elements.

  2. Wendy Mason

    Hi Dorothy
    Great post and very timely for me. I’ve just come across a rather unpleasant example in a discussion I started on LinkedIn. I’m sure the writer didn’t stop to think for one moment how the comment would reflect on him in such a public medium. He just couldn’t resist a making a clever and dare I say it rather spiteful point. Someone else has already reacted to it when the best thing is probably just to ignore or to report it!

    Your advice on what to do is particularly valuable to me. Oh so many times I can think of when I would have been wiser just to have stepped back from pressing that button!

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Wendy – it’s hard not to relatiate sometimes I agree. The 24 hour rule is a good one if irritated. But the relative anonymity of e -communication seems to unleash the beast in a number of people. In a normal F2F situation they may not be as provocative.

  3. Anne Perschel

    Dorothy – So many situations come to mind while reading your post. You have put a terrific resource in place, and I will pass it along to a number of people.
    And wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a little fingertip sensor baked into our laptops that “reads” our mood & disables the send button until our blood pressure returns to normal. Or as the saying goes – there should be an app for that.

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Hi Anne – thanks for your kind words.

      The 24 hour rule is a good one and something I have coached myself into. Have been a bit hot headed myself in my time and it got me nowhere.

      The other is to ask why does this bother me? Very often it is about a triggered self esteem issue which we all need to examine.

      The final question is what am I trying to accomplish? For many this type of interaction is about power playing and can become very unpleasant!

      Glad it was helpful!

  4. Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter

    Great post, Dorothy! As a word wrangler by profession, I try to be sensitive to the power of the written word! It can be both a perfumed flower or a dagger that wounds folks at the deepest level.

    From the nuance of each word, the arrangement of the words and the punctuation surrounding those words, writing a message can be quite powerful (in other instances, writing can be quite weak and unimpressive).

    The flaming emails, DMs, tweets, LinkedIn posts/comments, etc., though, can wreak havoc. I think there is still some adjusting going on in this e-communication world to align with our current reality that e-communications outweighs voice-to-voice communications (at least in some venues). This adjusting, I believe, requires writing and communications training and practice so we can improve results and impact.

    Personally, I think, with the proper tone and thoughtful crafting, e-communications has wide benefits that voice-to-voice doesn’t.

    I love that you shared the following: “Email senders predicted a 78% success rate for their emails to be correctly interpreted when in fact the result was 56% correct interpretation.” I think this information is worthy of reflection, as many folks (me included) have written emails in our past that fell short of their intended value, simply by lack of understanding how the written word differs from the spoken word.

    Cheers, and thanks for another reflective, well researched post!


    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Jacqui – I also have caused uspet unintentionally by not thinking how the other person my view a throw away remark. Sometimes it’s also impossible to know what is also going on for the recipient that would cause any bad reaction.

      Generally I have found if the ferocity of the response is disproportionate to the original content, then the liklihood that it’s not my fault and the presenting issue isn’t the real issue! Communication is complex!

  5. Michael Leiter

    A well written and timely piece. I enjoyed reading and I agree with your points.

    I see part of the problem with flames is that lack of perspective you pointed out. To some extent the perspective problem reflects a tension of the casual frame of online communications with the limited capacity of the medium.
    The casual quality arises from online communications, chats, and emails have qualities of conversation. And, as in conversation mode, people rarely proof their comments before posting.

    But the channel lacks nuance, facial expressions, and other qualities of casual conversation. As a result, sarcasm is impossible. The only options are more words. So, at the beginning of this message, I explicitly say that I agree with you, just in case that message isn’t evident. Otherwise, the reader may interpret an elaboration on one of her points as a criticism rather than the complement it was meant to be.

    I’m not sure about the prevalence of cyberbullies. I see most problematic communications reflecting cluelessness rather than maliciousness. But perhaps living in the rural bliss of Nova Scotia has buffered me from harsh realities out there.
    All the best,

    1. Dorothy Dalton

      Thanks Michael – yes I think all the research suggests that we are 50% set up to miscommunicate. There are only a small number of people who are overtly malicious – thankfully!

  6. irenicon

    Corporate trolls – what a world we live in. Perhaps we should form a group of corporate sunshines to respond when any trolls appear on our sites by ignoring them completely but posting happy, positive insightful comments!

  7. Cherry Woodburn

    Great post. I know that there have been emails that I received where I read a definite tone in them that I didn’t like and fortunately checked if I was correct in what I read into it. I wasn’t. Whew! Am I ever glad I didn’t send the response I’d initially constructed in my head.
    My words have also been misconstrued. I hate those little smiley faces but have used them so people knew I was joking. I will pay even closer attention now since reading your post. Cherry
    PS-tone in this email is intended to be positive. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *