E-mails, the lethal weapons that lurk on our screens

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The Independent Online

It started as a common-or-garden office spat. A middle manager, Ms A, wrote to her colleague, Mr B, asking whether work contributed by a freelance she had recommended was being used. Mr B replied that it was not, and that such matters were outside Ms A's area of responsibility but, since she had raised the subject, the freelance was incompetent, and he was surprised Ms A had recommended him in the first place. In her reply, Ms A rejected this view and pointed out that, if anyone was incompetent, it was Mr B.

It started as a common-or-garden office spat. A middle manager, Ms A, wrote to her colleague, Mr B, asking whether work contributed by a freelance she had recommended was being used. Mr B replied that it was not, and that such matters were outside Ms A's area of responsibility but, since she had raised the subject, the freelance was incompetent, and he was surprised Ms A had recommended him in the first place. In her reply, Ms A rejected this view and pointed out that, if anyone was incompetent, it was Mr B.

At that point, the correspondence became rather nasty. Over the next two days, allegations of incompetence, rudeness, lack of management skills, laziness and drinking during work hours flew back and forth between Ms A and Mr B.

Nothing unusual here, you might think. For as long as there have been offices, people have loathed or lusted after colleagues at a nearby desk. Yet the quality of this row is different. It's rawer, nastier and more accelerated than it used to be. It is also more common, and there is a reason for that. It is called e-mail.

Not so long ago, the war between Ms A and Mr B would have been waged in the form of containable skirmishes on accepted battlegrounds. There would have been tension at meetings, bitchy gossip in the pub after work. Memos might have been exchanged, but the fact that time would have elapsed between dictation and signature would have kept the lid on the dispute. There might have been words on the telephone but they would have been more guarded, less openly hostile, than anything typed in the heat of the moment on to a computer screen.

E-mail is lethal. It involves a volatile combination of immediacy and facelessness, allowing a combatant to hone the perfect, poisonous response, to strike back while emotions are high. Communicating in this way is like trying to send smoke signals by lighting a bush fire in a gale.

One might expect, in an age of image management, that the new technology would offer concealment, a general smoothing of relations. Yet electronic mail offers the most devastatingly honest, unmediated form of written contact that humans have ever had.

Even the e-mail etiquette is revealing. Those who write with the edgy formality of a conventional letter, complete with paragraphs and careful punctuation, are attempting, usually without success, to distance themselves from its rush and intimacy. Others, who breathlessly dispense with capitalisation and rely on cybernetic abbreviations, are flagging a secondary message in their communication: I am busy, on the cutting edge, gotta run.

No wonder that, while A and B discovered that their mutual rage had been stoked by e-mail, others are being drawn irresistibly into e-friendship, e-lust and e-love. Electronic communication offers a direct route to the inner person, bypassing the various embarrassments and distractions that tend to impede the face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact. It allows you to be more self-revealing and yet more articulate and brave than you might be in person.

Those who find soulmates through the Net are not succumbing to a fake, cybernetic experience but to the real thing: an attraction beyond the irrelevancies of looks, background, accent or personal circumstances. It should come as no surprise when a relationship seeded in contact through two computer screens bursts into flower when the two communicators finally meet in the flesh.

For those of us who express opinions publicly and leave an electronic calling card, the result can be a response from readers more openly irritated, garrulous, jokey or flirtatious than it would be in a letter. These reactions are like all e-contact - immediate, honest and, just now and then, slightly alarming.

terblacker@aol.com

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