Rude emails can be more harmful than the sender intended, says new research.
Twenty years ago, if someone asked if you could do your job for a day without having a single in-person conversation – or if you’d willingly carry around a small brick in your hand or pocket everywhere you went – you would have likely said ‘no’. Alas, both are now extremely common occurrences in our modern workplaces.
Over the last few decades, we’ve become accustomed to communicating through screens of varying sizes and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated our penchant for shooting off a quick email or Slack message instead of picking up the phone or chatting face-to-face (of course, the latter isn’t an option in many instances).
For organisations that were lucky enough to be able to continue operating amid Australia’s various lockdowns, online communication platforms can be attributed to keeping everything afloat.
However, as we become reliant on these forms of communication, employers need to have a plan in place to manage the downsides.
“As per my last email”
In 2017, we sent an estimated 269 billion emails worldwide. A portion of those emails would have been sent or received by you, reader, and you likely misinterpreted at least some of them.
It’s very easy to overthink the tone of someone’s email. Too many words and we think the sender is scattered or overcomplicated things, too little and they’re blunt or rude. And while strategically placed emojis help the reader to interpret the tone of a message, they too can be misinterpreted (😉 is that a knowing wink or an inappropriate workplace gesture? And what does the upside down smiley face even mean? 🙃)
While a hastily written email isn’t always intended to hurt the recipient’s feelings, there are circumstances where that’s the exact goal. It’s these types of emails that researchers Zhenyu Yuan, Youngah Park and Michael Sliter, of the University of Illinois, were interested in.
In two studies published in the Journal of Occupational Health and Psychology 2020, the researchers investigated the impact that rude emails can have on employee wellbeing.
They broke ‘rude emails’ into two categories: active and passive responses. The first are emails that clearly display rude behaviour, such as “demeaning or derogatory” remarks, like ALL CAPS TO INDICATE SHOUTING. The latter, on the other hand, are more covert – such as purposefully ignoring an employees’ request or opinion, or responding to someone’s thoughtfully crafted email with a single word response – “noted”, “received” or “okay”.
The researchers believe it’s important to distinguish between the “commission of disrespect (active) and the omission of respect (passive)” in order to properly understand the nuances of this workplace stressor and create appropriate interventions.
In the first study, 223 US employees were surveyed and asked about how they felt when they received rude emails – this helped the researchers to identify the makings of a passively or actively rude email.
In the second study, respondents were asked to keep a daily diary which detailed the spillover effects of email incivility, such as how it impacted their sleep and general wellbeing.
From the first study, they found that active email incivility can lead to “greater levels of emotionality appraisal” (i.e. believing an email was emotionally charged) and passive incivility, unsurprisingly, lead to greater levels of ambiguity – both of which can be stressful for employees.
Rude emails keep us up at night
Worryingly, the second study showed that passively rude emails were linked with insomnia, more so than actively rude emails. This, the researchers say, can lead to a “heightened negative affect” the following day – that’s the academic way of saying we’re grumpy and unpleasant to be around when running on little sleep.
You might be surprised to hear that passive acts of rudeness were more closely linked to poor sleep health. To this, the researchers say: “sleep research supports that uncertainty plays a critical role in the onset and maintenance of insomnia. As such, passive email incivility, which is conducive to ambiguity appraisals, may be more likely to keep individuals up at night, compared with active email incivility.”
This isn’t to say that actively rude emails aren’t damaging to an individual or workplace culture. As the researchers point out, an employee might lash out or grow resentful of the person who is sending blatantly rude emails to them, meaning the relationship can deteriorate and the cohesion of the team/workplace could be disrupted. Their research just shows that passively rude emails can be harder to disconnect from out of hours.
A separate experiment showed that participants who received sarcastic feedback via email (such as: “good luck, genius”) experienced a higher heart rate than those in the control group. Stress that’s associated with interpersonal communications, says Yuan et al., can arouse our brains, meaning it’s much harder to psychologically detach from work and get an adequate amount of, or quality of, sleep.
In an article for Science Daily, Yuan notes rudeness in emails can be harder to detach from than if someone is rude to you in person because the recipient is able to constantly revisit the email or message chain, often out of work hours, essentially re-living the distress felt when they first received it.
Yuan and his co-researchers also point to separate research which suggests that email incivility can lead to “lower levels of organisational commitment and job satisfaction, and higher levels of turnover intention and workplace deviance.”
Convenience shouldn’t trump politeness
While HR leaders and managers can’t police employees’ emails and instant messaging platforms, reminding people to practice good e-manners is a good first step in addressing this workplace stressor, especially if people have never considered the tone of their emails/messages before.
The researchers also suggest those on the receiving end of email rudeness do their best to “psychologically detach” from work by not checking their emails out of hours – this should be supported by an expectation from leadership that emails be answered within work hours only.
In an article for The Scientific American about the research, Yuan says “To mitigate this stress, managers need to set clear and reasonable expectations regarding email communications. Whenever possible, organisations should create meaningful opportunities for employees to build effective work relationships. This way, when people draft an email, they will see its recipients as approachable instead of abstract addresses that they can demean or even choose to ignore.”
“No matter your level of stress, remember the rules of netiquette. How do you do that? Spend some time crafting your email. Acknowledge when you have received a request. Reread your message for potentially inconsiderate expressions. If you are too busy, let your co-workers know you will get back to them within a reasonable time frame.”
Of course, you’re not always going to have time to send an essay-length response to someone’s query; brevity is often key. However, it’s worth putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagining how your response might come across, no matter how busy you are.
So, next time you’re in a rush and you shoot off a one-word reply, consider chucking in an emoji to soften the blow 👍 – it might just mean the person on the other end of your email sleeps better that night.
Effective communication in the workplace requires a high level of emotional intelligence. AHRI’s short course, ‘Applied Emotional Intelligence’ will equip you with the skills to improve your self-awareness, resilience, influence and relationships within and outside of the workplace.