Imagine waking up on Monday morning to an e-mail in your inbox that was written entirely in capital letters—an e-mail that jolts you awake far quicker than the cup of coffee in your hand: “IS THIS A JOKE??? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” With the caps lock key and the stroke of an exclamation point, your co-worker has just done the equivalent of shouting at you across the office. Yet these days this kind of encounter is almost commonplace. Whether they come in all caps, exclamation marks, silence or snark, rude e-mails are on the rise.
For a civilized society, we’re not always so civil. In fact, rudeness is a pervasive problem. In a 2002 report on a study conducted with a large representative sample of 2,013 adults, 88 percent of the general public indicated they had come across rude and disrespectful people on a daily basis. And the workplace is no escape. As the sheer volume of electronic communications has skyrocketed, the problem of “nasty e-mail” is becoming nonnegligible. In fact, more than 90 percent of professionals surveyed in a 2009 study said that they had experienced disrespectful e-mail exchanges at work.
Electronic communication is efficient, but it’s also distant and detached. In face-to-face interactions, people are usually aware of their mutual expectations regarding civility and decency. Sitting in front of a computer screen, however, the need for decency disappears. No one would think to ignore a question or respond rudely in person. Yet with e-mail, individuals are given free rein to avoid requests or to reply in an insensitive tone.
And being on the receiving end of such impoliteness can have a lasting effect. Studies have shown that dealing with rude e-mails at work can create lingering stress and take a toll on the recipient’s well-being. In a simulated work experiment, participants who received such a message from their boss experienced more negative emotions, found it harder to stay engaged in work tasks and answered fewer questions correctly than the control group. The stress associated with e-mail rudeness can creep into family life as well. A diary study that surveyed employees twice a day over five workdays found that when employees received impolite messages during a workday, they were likely to report more stress symptoms both in the evening and the following morning.
And like a common cold picked up at the office, this effect spreads quickly to those closest to us. In fact, workers’ loved ones may bear the brunt of stress caused by e-mail rudeness: A study surveying dual-earner couples suggested that employees passed on such stress to their partner during the weekend. As a result, these partners—the unwitting victims of e-mail incivility—reported increased disengagement from their own work in the following week. One poorly constructed message can have a chain reaction, sending stress signals from one recipient to the next.
But it’s not just derogatory or condescending remarks that create stress. Another culprit is a subtler form of aggression: avoidance. Unlike active e-mail rudeness, in which the content contains the insult, passive e-mail rudeness happens when a person does not reply to a request, essentially giving others the “silent treatment.”
In a study conducted on the nature of e-mail rudeness, we surveyed 233 people in the U.S. about their experiences with such messages at work. The collected data supported the idea of two distinct forms of impolite e-mails: active rudeness was empirically distinguishable from passive rudeness. As part of the study, we asked participants to either upload or describe a rude e-mail encounter they had experienced recently and to report their reactions to it. Based on the content/description of the exchange, we classified it as demonstrating either active or passive incivility. Interestingly, participants regarded active rudeness as emotionally charged, while they reported a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty about passive rudeness. Derogatory remarks—that is, active rudeness—may get someone worked up because of their offensive nature. In contrast, the “silent treatment”—that is, passive rudeness—leaves people hanging and struggling with uncertainty.
With remote work on the rise, e-mail rudeness warrants even more attention. The burden of smiling into the camera for live videoconferencing can be overwhelming, but resorting to e-mail will not save us from stress. The use of electronic communication has already opened the floodgates, allowing incivility to thrive in the workplace and our inbox. That rude message from your boss is securely stored away, should you wish to revisit it. Your request to a colleague for information may continue to go unanswered, no matter how many times you check your e-mail.
To mitigate this stress, managers need to set clear and reasonable expectations regarding e-mail communications. Whenever possible, organizations should create meaningful opportunities for employees to build effective work relationships. This way, when people draft an e-mail, they will see its recipients as approachable instead of abstract addresses that they can demean or even choose to ignore.
For employees, one effective way to cope is through psychological detachment. The best option is to unplug from work after-hours. Enjoy your family dinner or time with friends instead of perseverating over a work e-mail during your time off. For those working from home, this mental separation becomes even more important.
And no matter your level of stress, remember the rules of netiquette. How do you do that? Spend some time crafting your e-mail. 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. Simply put, do unto others as you would have them do unto you—and perhaps keep caps lock off.