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.


 

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