Monday, January 21, 2008

Emailing It In

I have a dear friend who refers to email as "the drive-up window of communication." He doesn't mean it as a compliment. My friend works in a ministry that historically has made heavy use of written communication as a primary means of interaction among its members and constituents. "In the old days," he laments, "people would write letters and then be patient to wait for days, or possibly even weeks, for a reply. Not anymore. Not with email. Nowadays, if a reply isn't sent within a few hours, you'll hear from them again, asking you why you haven't gotten back with them yet on the message they sent earlier."

All laments aside, email has made its mark and no doubt will continue to do so for a while longer into the future. (In case you didn't know, email is "old hat" to the younger generation, who definitely prefer the even more instant means of communication: text messaging. But we'll save that for another post!)

With such pervasive use of email, it isn't surprising to see it playing a significant role in conflict differentiation and resolution. Is that a good thing? Maybe, but probably not.

The nature of email does allow for more rapid exchanges of communication over large geographical distances. That's where the "Maybe" comes into play. The "probably not" is due to various other considerations. For example, researchers Anita Bhappu and Zoe Barsness note that email affords people greater "social distance" than face-to-face communication. Social distance refers to the measure of one's ability to communicate with others in an interactive context. In more interactive contexts (for example, those involving face-to-face communication), people take into account both the obvious and more nuanced feedback of others as they communicate. Being much less interactive, email imposes greater social distance, which results in less attention paid to the actual real-time feedback of others as the email gets written. (Don't confuse the ability to reply to email with the ability to interact with people as they write emails.)

All of this to say that something like email allows people to communicate in a much more self-absorbed way. It allows them to be more confrontational, more competitive, and more focused on their own interests than they might otherwise be in face-to-face communication. Of course, these same laments could be leveled against the use of snail-mail in conflict. But that's part of the point, email has made it even easier to differentiate or address conflict issues that might otherwise be differentiated or resolved more biblically.

Sometime ago, I received an email from a man in my church containing a number of accusations and half-truths. What set this particular email apart was the following: (1) the man did not talk with me, either by phone or face-to-face, about any of his "concerns" prior to writing the email, even though I had sought such interaction with him; (2) once he sent the email, he refused to talk with me in person about any of its contents; and (3) he copied at least 20 others with the same email.

It's difficult to imagine the same kind of thing happening or being allowed to happen in face-to-face communication. Imagine someone calling a surprise face-to-face meeting of forty or so people. Imagine he lays out certain half-truths and accusations with no interruptions allowed. And then, when he finishes, he simply storms out of the room, absolutely refusing to interact further with anyone on anything he has said.

Bhappu and Barsness, mentioned earlier, contend that self-absorbed communication media like email diminish what they call the "grounding" of communication exchanges. "Grounding is the process by which two parties in an interaction develop a shared sense of understanding about a communication and a shared sense of participation in the conversation." Shared understanding and a shared sense of participation are both critical elements of the process of coming to biblical same-mindedness. We cannot identify or embrace the interests of others (Phil. 2:4, 21) without both.

In light of all this, it seems wise to severely limit the use of email to differentiate or address conflict. Practitioners of biblical same-mindedness should make almost exclusive use of more interactive communication to enjoy the blessings of biblical resolution, while avoiding the pitfalls of self-absorption.

Discussion and Application Questions:
1. In light of today's post, do you think the use of email fulfills Jesus' command in Matthew 5:23-24 to "first go and be reconciled to your brother" when you become aware of something hindering your relationship with him? Why or why not?
2. What might some of a person's motivations be for using email to differentiate or negotiate conflict, rather than going in person? How would you characterize these motivations?
3. What counsel would you give to someone who shared that he was about to address some conflict he is having with a third-party using email?
4. What counsel would you give to someone who receives an email such as the one used in the article as an illustration? How would counsel him to respond?
5. What other Scriptures apply?

Is there a more beneficial use of email in regard in conflict situations? More in next week's post...

Note: For more information on the process of biblical same-mindedness, check out "Where Do We Go From Here: The Path To Biblically Resolving Conflict" by Randal L. Gilmore. Available here.

See also "Risks of Email" by Anita D. Bhappu and Zoe I. Barsness in The Negotiator's Fieldbook, edited by Schneider and Honeyman. The definition of "grounding" quoted above can be found on pages 397-98.


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