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Mar 5, 2017

The Long Email Combat Ritual

Among the tribes of the Academia, a small minority engages in a strange combat ritual. The weapon of choice is the long email. It is usually reinforced with a tail of previous long emails, and with multiple CC recipients. The warriors may adorn their weapons with brightly highlighted lines, intended to point out how obviously wrong or incompetent the other person it. Some have their desk drawers full of printed out emails as trophies of previous glorious battles, and in anticipation of the Judgment Day.

A battle often begins innocent enough; the exchanges look like simple business-like conversations. However, with time, they become longer, more detailed, and include more and more elements pointing out at the other party’s faults and omissions. At that time, they usually acquire more recipients, including me. The anthropologist in me is fascinated by the elaborate ornaments. The manager in me wonders how much time they spend writing these things.

OK, now seriously: Email is a terrible medium for resolving any problem, much less a conflict. It is cold, emotionless, and always sounds harsher than intended. Moreover, once you are past two exchanges, it is not even productive – it is time to meet or at least talk on the phone. I have learned this rule of thumb from my friend and mentor Eugene Sheehan. We write emails in order to save time for planning a meeting, right? But after four e-mails, you have reached the point of diminishing returns. The sad thing is that the medium itself lends to being weaponized. It does not enhance social cohesion, but may actually corrode it.

So, the grown up thing to do is to get up and meet someone you disagree with, or whose points you do not understand, in a face-to-face situation, or at least give one a phone call. When we do that, we activate psychological deterrence mechanisms that are hundreds of thousands years old. It is more difficult to say something nasty to someone’s face. The psychic cost is much higher, so we normally avoid doing it. It is because we evolved as species attuned to interpersonal communications. Email is too new for us to adapt.

Another great trick I learned from someone is this: if you receive an irritated email, a challenge, really a provocation to fight, answer it with the deadliest of all weapons – silence. A non-reply is a great answer in some circumstances, and it is amazing how many people feel compelled answer every e-mail. Again, the CC recipients create this urge – if you do not answer a publically wielded falsehood, you may look guilty by the virtue of non-responding. But give your audience more credit – they will more likely interpret your silence correctly. A nasty email is like trolling on social media. The wisdom of teenagers – do not feed the troll. Any response is a gift to the troll. The more you sound like you’re hurt, the more successful is the trolling attack. We teach young kids to walk away from the impending fight, but so often don’t know how to do this in our own world.


  1. Thank you Alexander, it's all true true true, add to that text messaging add to that cheesy emoticons and you have a sampling of screwed up communications that humans involve themselves in circa 21st century, a terrible amount of precious time, wasted, I mean just think of all the wasted hours we have all engaged in trying think we can sort out conflicts via these modes of communication!!! we are longing for face-to-face we are longing for geiuine authenticity, soon our longing will be satisfied, not yet but soon ...

  2. A humorous way to point out an important way to avoid making a 'troublesome' situation worse. Thanks for the weekly updates and your blog posts.