You probably know the situation. It starts off very innocently. You send an email. Someone replies. Then slowly the emails are getting longer, the tone is getting more formal and more corporate. Before you know it the ping-pong is so quick that you could just as easily be on the phone with each other.
But that would be counterproductive. Because picking a fight via email is much easier.
The Benefits of Asynchronism
Email is perfect and unique for picking a fight and escalating conflict. It’s asynchronous, which means that you and your counterpart aren’t in the same room or virtual space. So you can read and respond to them whenever you feel like it. Which in itself can feel good. Just think of the powerful feeling knowing that you know you received that email, but deliberately let the other one wait.
You don’t even have to be in a real conversation. You can just throw one-directional comments the other.
The Benefits of Text Only
Email is also unique because it’s pure text. That means you have only the written words and you can interpret in any which way you like. Add any type of imagined facial expression or verbal nuances that will help you get into conflict mode.
Imagine: Even a simple “Hope you’re well.” can sound very sarcastic in your inner ear if you choose to.
The Benefits of Not Knowing
Email protects you from “a shared sense of understanding about a communication and a shared sense of participation in the conversation”. You’re “not physically present with others, cannot see their faces or hear their voices, and cannot give or get immediate responses”.
You also don’t see what’s going on around them.
All of this makes it incredibly hard to understand the world from their perspective. This plays in your favour, because at the same time it makes it so much easier to just go with the assumptions that help you escalate the conflict.
The Benefits of Reviewing and Revising
Compared to other forms of communication you can review and revise an email as often as you wish.
Just go over and over the email you just received. You’ll see: The more often you read it, the more things you’ll find to interpret to your liking and the more you can get fired up for your response.
When the time comes to draft your response, make sure to revise it often before hitting send. Play with the wording. Make it stronger, more formal and build in sarcastic comments (that could just as easily pass for “Oh no, I didn’t mean it like this.”).
Another tip is to make your email long. Longer. Put all your arguments into one string of endless text. Pile it up. Your counterpart can’t stop or interrupt you as you work so hard getting worked up.
The Benefits of Isolation
The fact that you don’t see your counterpart and that you write your email without any people around plays in your favour as well. You basically put yourself in a context, where you don’t need to have any awareness about human sensibilities. Feel free to forget that the receiver of your email is a person with thoughts and feelings of their own.
This way you can use more and more aggressive tactics without a bad conscience.
Of course you want your counterpart to do the same. It helps your conflict to enter the negative spiral you wanted when you first started to pick the fight.
The Benefits of Deindividuation
To support this aggressiveness, it is advisable that you focus on what you dislike about your counterpart. You’ll be able to put more blame on them and interpret their actions as threats. Your inhibitions against retaliations and your empathy will be lower. You’ll find it easier to avoid them when you meet them in the hallway.
Just in case you want to remember the most important things: Here’s a small cheat sheet. Pay attention to these things and you’ll soon be a master not only in picking a fight, but also in escalating it to the point of no return.
PS: This post is based on insights published in Friedman, R. A., & Currall, S. C. (2003). Conflict escalation: Dispute exacerbating elements of e-mail communication. Human relations, 56(11), 1325-1347.