of people have incorporated the use of email as
an effective and efficient means of communication.
Effective because it delivers a clear and standard
form of correspondence; efficient because of its
ease and speed. However, although many view electronic
messaging as a supplement to other norms of communication
such as face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations,
oftentimes this technological innovation serves
as a replacement to such norms. Unlike face-to-face
and telephone communication, however, email is limited
to textual information as its primary form of communication.
As a result, such a forum may unneccesarily escalate
conflict between parties if not properly managed.
many uneasy situations, clicking the "send"
button seems more appealing than knocking on someone's
door or even picking up the phone. In the workplace,
sending an e-mail rather than engaging in a personal
confrontation with the boss can often help suppress
conflict in the workplace, according to a Wellington,
New Zealand-based academic studying the use of e-mail.
Derek Wallace, a lecturer in academic and professional
writing and communications at the Victoria University
of Wellington, has been studying the use of e-mail
as part of a "Language in the Workplace"
is allowing people to manage their hierarchical
or personal relationships by giving them a way of
avoiding the physical brunt of these relations,
and therefore of tolerating them," Wallace
says. "From behind their screens they can communicate
coolly over the top of their underlying tensions."
can the impersonal features of email help escalate
some conflicts? According to the authors of a recent
paper, employing email as a means of resolving conflict
carries a significant risk: that conflicts may escalate
to irresolvable levels and even damage senders'
and receivers' relationships.
A. Friedman and Steven C. Currall authored this
paper entitled, "E-Mail
Escalation: Dispute Exacerbating Elements of Electronic
Communication." (pdf) Friedman is an associate
professor of management at Vanderbilt University's
Owen Graduate School of Management, and Steven C.
Currall is a William and Stephanie Sick Professor
of Entrepreneurship and an associate professor of
management, psychology and statistics at Rice University's
Jones Graduate School of Management.
paper discusses the properties inherent to face-to-face
conversation that e-mail lacks: copresence (parties
are in the same surroundings), visibility (parties
see one another), audibility (parties hear speech
timing and intonation), cotemporality (parties receive
utterances as they are produced), simultaneity (parties
send and receive messages at once) and sequentiality
(parties take turns). Such properties allow the
parties to "ground" the interaction — that is, to
achieve a shared understanding about the encounter
and a shared sense of participation. Grounding,
timing and adjusting are all critically important
tools in successful conflict resolution. 
these properties with email's features, one can
observe the anti-social aspect of electronic communication.
The authors cite examples such as low feedback --
how the recipient reacts to the comments. As a result,
misunderstandings and inadvertent insults may ensue
causing social bonds to weaken and unnecessarliy
escalating the conflict. In another example, a lengthy
message can include bundled arguments. This can
result in forgetting to respond to one or more arguments.
Moreover, the recipient may focus on the most upsetting
arguments, thus ignoring others. If the sender notices
these omissions, he/she may suspect a violation
of interaction norms.
project of Campus Conflict Resolution
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo
to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.
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