“Speak, she said, as you would write: as if your words were letters of lead, graven there for all time, for which you must take the consequences.” ― Dorothy Dunnett
There are plenty of articles, blogs, and comments surrounding the propriety of the chain of emails exchanged between reporter, Michael Hastings, and State Department aide Philippe Reines. While I have several opinions regarding the exchange, one detail stood out to me beyond the simple text.
Reviewing the date and time stamps on each message, the entire span of the exchange clocks in at slightly over three hours. More specifically, less than one hour elapsed before Mr. Reines replied to the initial email from Hastings.
One disadvantage of being continually connected is the ease with which we can issue a written reply “off the cuff”, without allowing time for a measured response. Especially when responding to sensitive issues, perceived attacks and slights, or personal comments, it requires a significant amount of self-control to refrain from instantly responding. Consider the following excerpt:
On Sun, Sep 23, 2012 at 12:45 PM, Reines, Philippe I wrote:
Why do you bother to ask questions you’ve already decided you know the answers to?
From: Michael Hastings
Sent: Sunday, September 23, 2012 12:50 PM
To: Reines, Philippe I Cc: Nuland, Victoria J
Subject: Re: Request for comment
Why don’t you give answers that aren’t bull**** for a change?
On Sun, Sep 23, 2012 at 1:38 PM, Reines, Philippe I wrote:
I now understand why the official investigation by the Department of the Defense as reported by The Army Times The Washington Post concluded beyond a doubt that you’re an unmitigated a**hole.
While the pause afforded to us via email could be used to craft a pithier insult, it may be more beneficial to use this time for reflection. Clearly the excerpt above has degenerated beyond these initial deliberations, but before responding at all, consider:
Does this communication need a response?
Am I the best person to respond to this?
Often, we do need to respond to messages that may initially elicit an emotional response. Though that first response may be emotional, however, does not mean that emotion needs to be evident in a written reply. If you must respond, consider:
Is my reply concise, addressing only the necessary topics?
What tone do I convey through my chosen adjectives?
Am I making “I” statements, or “you” statements?
Is my response unnecessarily defensive or combative?
A measured response is hard to craft “in the moment” – and an hour is not always long enough to clear your head. The best advice I have received:
Have a trusted, uninvolved party provide some perspective
Sleep on it
While a lot of these lessons seem like common sense, it is incredibly easy to get caught up in your emotions and respond without thinking. Keep in mind though: words of lead may be graven for all of time – words posted online are graven for all of time AND have a much broader audience.