Emailing can be a stupid idea, and you need someone else to point that out

This blog post is about something as mundane as writing an email. Actually, it is about writing an email. Since, because it is so mundane, it’s sometimes almost impossible to not email. Therefore, every opportunity is a good one to put the spotlight on that fact.

The other day, I received an email from someone I shall call ‘Bob’. It didn’t have a particularly pleasant tone. It bugged me. And I immediately sat down to write a reply.

Bob’s message was a reply to an email I had sent earlier. In his response, Bob pointed out the mistakes he thought I had made in my message. He did so in statements that seemed to try to underline my apparent inattention. And, of course, Bob had cc’d his entire project team in his email.

Naturally, I didn’t think I made any mistakes. And, like I said, the tone didn’t please me either. Besides, it matched his behavior in a meeting I had had with him earlier.

Bob got under my skin.

“Call him,” was all she said.

After half an hour of writing, reading, rewriting and rereading my reply email, my girlfriend called. It was about an unrelated event, but at the end I asked her: “What do you think I should do?” I explained the situation with Bob.

“Call him,” was all she said.

I paused. Thought about it. And said: “You’re absolutely right!”

So, I called Bob. He answered. We talked. It was a perfectly friendly talk. In a calm manner I could ask for Bob’s intentions and explain mine. I hung up relieved.

I had to think of the ‘end scene’ of the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, led by social psychologist Philip Zimbardo. In the experiment, twenty students were assigned the role of either guard or prisoner. After six days of mental torment, Zimbardo ended the experiment prematurely.

We need others to point out how abnormal our behavior sometimes is

It took Zimbardo’s girlfriend, who came by to visit on day six, to point out to him how badly the guards were behaving and how miserable the inmates were. Zimbardo was too much involved to see this himself. But it felt like waking from a dream, he said.

This may be an extreme parallel, but the two events are parallel. We get sucked into things that seem normal so easily. And we need others to point out how abnormal they actually are and wake up.

And once we wake up and see the abnormality of things, it’s not that hard to do things normally.

We get sucked into emailing others about sensitive stuff, when picking up the phone or walking over to that other person’s desk is so much more effective and relieving. But most of the times we can’t get out of the tunnel we’re sucked into.

At least, we can’t get out by ourselves.

So, next time you’re about to hit “send” on the top of that overheated email, tell about your plan to someone you trust. It’ll probably turn out to be a cockamamie plan.

Olav de Maat is author and consultant. He has a book, a Facebook page, a website, a daughter, a dog and a girlfriend.



What to do when friends don’t pay up

Last Thursday, the finale took place of two and a half years of fuss about a twelve-thousand-euro loan. At least, I hope so. Because it seems that the end was already in sight two and a half years ago.

Share your opinion on how I handled this with the poll at the bottom of this post. 

Meanwhile, it’s been twenty months. I still don’t have my money back.

At the beginning of September 2016, ‘Oz’, an acquaintance who was up to his neck in a huge construction project, asked if my girlfriend and I knew someone who could temporarily help him out. With twelve thousand euros he would get the biggest creditors off his back. And he expected he needed three months to get things sorted out with the bank for a multimillion-euro deal for the project. So the loan would be repaid before the end of the year.

At that moment, I could do without such an amount for a few months. And I supported Oz’s initiative. Moreover, I trusted him. So I told him he could count on me.

At the insistence of Oz, we had a contract drawn up. Among other things, it stated: ‘Repayment of the loan is made by full repayment, the first and only term of which expires on 31 December 2016.’

Meanwhile, it’s been twenty months. I still don’t have my money back. And since we are renovating a house we just bought, we now need it ourselves.

Since January 2017, we’ve tried to reach Oz regularly. Sometimes, after months of insisting, we got a result. At moments like these, he would tell us that the money would shortly come. Then, this wouldn’t happen. So, after some time, we tried to reach him again in vain. After which he would let us know very briefly that everything would almost be finished. And then he would disappear from the radar, again.

We thought that we would take a different approach. We were going to turn to the people around him.

It was March the last time I spoke to him.

Since his promises turned out to be empty again and again, and especially because we could not elicit a response via email, WhatsApp and telephone, a week ago, we thought we would take a different approach. We were going to turn to the people around him.

First, my girlfriend called his company. He turned out not to be there at that moment. So she asked for his business partner. She was there. She had an appointment with Oz that day, she said. My girlfriend asked her to ask him to call us. She also explained why she wanted to reach him. His business partner promised to tell him.

After a few days Oz still had not contacted us. In the end, we decided to approach his girlfriend.

He was mad. At us.

I called her and got her voicemail. I left a message with explanations and apologies. Assuming that she would be surprised by this news, I also emailed her with our predicament. That way, she could read it, in case she couldn’t believe her ears.

My girlfriend sent a last, desperate WhatsApp in which she almost begged Oz for contact. This time, we got a reaction. Oz wrote that he had understood that we had approached his business partner and girlfriend. That was all he wrote. No excuses. No promises.

He did put six dots between the name of his business partner and that of his girlfriend.

He was mad. At us.

My girlfriend decided to call him. She actually got him on the phone right away. After she had briefly tried to make it clear to him that she was baffled by his response, he took over the conversation. How could I involve his girlfriend in this? Approaching his business partner was one thing. But his romantic partner? That really went too far, he said.

After my girlfriend hung up, she asked me for the number of my business account and the amount that Oz owed me by now. He had said he would transfer it as soon as he had that information. (BTW: it’s been two business days since then, and the money still isn’t in my account.)

He doesn’t have to face his own lack of decency. He is not wrong. I am the bad guy here, if you ask him.

I felt a bit ashamed when Oz turned out to be angry with me. Had I indeed gone too far?

We had decided to approach the people who see him the most and who have the most influence on him, because, time and time again, he turned out not to be approachable or influenced by us.

What’s more, if I had not told her about the situation, his girlfriend had gone and asked him if he wanted to call a certain Olav de Maat. That would elicit the same response as always: nothing.

And we wanted to elicit something. Because, it wasn’t even the fact he wouldn’t pay up, it was the fact he would categorically ignore us for months at a time that had bothered us most.

Moreover, on principle and out of respect for the friendship with him, we did not want to make this a legal issue. Of course we could have sent formal letters and threatened him with bailiffs. But that’s not in our nature. We wanted to avoid stuff like that for as long as possible.

If a human sees a chance to keep his self-image clean, he must be strong-willed not to grab it.

What I hate the most about this whole episode is that Oz is angry with me. In his eyes I am the a-hole who has his girlfriend involved in this. And with that, he does not have to face his own lack of decency. He is not wrong. I am the bad guy here, if you ask him.

And why would he not think so? He’s only human. And if a human sees a chance to keep his self-image clean, he must be strong-willed not to grab it. Especially when it comes to something that simply has no good reason. For what good reason is there to go mute when someone who loaned you a considerable sum is trying to reach you with all his might?

But maybe now I’m also polishing my self-image. Who knows.

Eventually we sent Oz a final WhatsApp before we went to bed Thursday night: “The only thing we wanted with the loan to you was to make the world a little better and let the good guys win. We think it’s a real (really real) pity that we have now given each other the feeling that the other person is the bad guy and the world has not gotten better for it.”

I’m curious: what do you think of this? Am I also suffering from self-deception in this case? Give your opinion in the poll below.