Being Our Own "Moodwatchers"
MoodWatch is based on rhetorical theories developed by David Kaufer, head of English at Carnegie Mellon University. Kaufer conducted a study of "flaming," which he defines as "computer-mediated communication designed to intimidate the interlocutor by withholding the expected courtesies of polite communication." In other words, flaming is aggressive, angry, or rude language shot across cyberspace at the intended recipient.
According to Kaufer, flaming is all about intimidation. His study, based on an analysis of over one thousand e-mails, produced "dictionaries" of flaming words and phrases that MoodWatch uses in rating individual messages. Of course, there are the usual suspects of profanity and offensive language, but other phrases trigger a "chili alert" simply by their intimidating tone. Examples include "I'm not about to …" and "I'm sick and tired of your…."
Of course, as Kaufer notes, a computer program is an imperfect tool. It can detect the "conventional language of flaming," but it can't possibly catch all intimidating language. That's because within the larger context of what's going on in relationships, the most seemingly benign language can come across as outright nasty in an e-mail:
Imagine an employee who is responsible for getting a report out that is late in delivery. The employee's supervisor knows it is late, knows the employee already feels bad it is late and, in a fit of anger, sends the following abrupt email: "When is the report coming out?" The language, on the surface, is an innocent question about the future. Yet the employee feels it as rubbing salt on his wounds, a direct challenge to his fulfillment of his work assignments and, perhaps, his fitness as an employee. The message is meant and deeply felt as a flame, though it bears none of the characteristic linguistic patterns of a flame. No computer program can possibly capture such flaming. Yet the most personally hurtful flames are probably of this type.
Of course, no e-mail monitoring program can fully grasp the complexities of interpersonal relationships. And therein lies one of the greatest limitations of e-mail itself. In this age of multitasking, e-mail is our tool for reaching more people more quickly and frequently than ever before. We don't need to wait for someone to pick up the phone or come out of a meeting. We can be conversing with one person on the phone while at the same time e-mailing another. In other words, if measured by the number of contacts made per unit of time, e-mail has definitely increased the "productivity" of our communication.
But what about the quality? Many have credited e-mail with resurrecting the art of written correspondence. It's true: People to whom letter writing was once a foreign concept are now happily tapping away at their keyboards. But when you factor in e-mail's immediacy, the exchange of messages becomes more telephonic—e-mail becomes another medium for carrying on normal, everyday conversations. However, these conversations are stripped of the usual nonverbal cues to meaning: facial expressions, body language, tone of voice.
So it all comes down to language, to making up for the lack of nonverbal cues with word choice and punctuation. That's tough for us to do when we're conditioned to think of e-mail as the faster way to communicate. Locked in that mindset, we fire off messages left and right, clicking "Send" and assuming the people on the other end are going to understand exactly what we mean. Meanwhile, one of those people clicking "Receive" understands something different entirely. Depending on the miscommunication, the consequences can range from a minor glitch in production to a severely damaged relationship.
Not surprisingly, a new method of mass communication such as e-mail makes us look at how we "talk" to each other using any medium. No matter whether we're e-mailing the boss, catching a colleague in the hallway, or confronting an underperforming employee, as stakeholders we must all be our own "moodwatchers." The responsibility for good communication is ours. With the pressures of time and competition, it is tempting to shortchange this process, to communicate poorly or infrequently. But over time, the consequences of this neglect build up, negatively affecting morale and, ultimately, productivity. In this chapter, we explore the attributes of good communication within Accountable Organizations and without.
David Kaufer, "Flaming: A White Paper," June 2000, 5.