Article Summary: E-Mail Escalation — Dispute Exacerbating Elements of Electronic Communication

Article: E-Mail Escalation: Dispute Exacerbating Elements of Electronic Communication
Author Raymond A. Friedman
Summary A. Guberman

E-mail is not a conversation, but a series of intermittent, one-way comments.

6 tools for grounding that are present in face-to-face conversations, but are missing in E-mail:

  1. copresence, which allows each party to be in the same surroundings and see what the other is doing and looking at
  2. visibility, which allows each party to see the other (albeit not necessarily their surroundings)
  3. audibility, which allows each party to hear timing of speech and intonation
  4. cotemporality, where each party receives an utterance just as it is produced
  5. simultaneity, where both parties can send and receive messages at once
  6. sequentiality, where turn-taking cannot get out of sequence.

E-mail has two tools available that are not present in face-to-face, telephone or teleconferencing, which are derived from e-mail not being subject to cotemporality and sequentiality.

  1. reviewability, which is the ability to have a record of each person’s comments that can be reviewed as often as desired, and
  2. revisability, which is the ability to revise a statement before sending it.
  3. Argument Bundling” – making 5-10 points all at once.

E-mail interactions are distant from the social rituals common to face-to-face or telephone conversations.

Reference: Conflict Spiral Model (Rubin et All)

Conflict: an increase in the intensity of a conflict as a whole (Rubin et all, 1994, p.69)
Escalation is important because when conflict escalates it is intensified in ways that are sometimes exceedingly difficult to undo.

Why negative spirals are so easy to get sucked into:

  1. Disliked others tend to receive more blame while liked others are given the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Ambiguous actions by the other are more likely to be seen as threatening if that other is disliked.
  3. Inhibitions against retaliation are reduced if the other is disliked
  4. People tend to avoid those towards whom they are hostile, reducing communication
  5. Negative attitudes reduce empathy.

E-mail escalation factors / risks:

  1. Encourages more aggressive tactics due to absence of grounding tools
  2. Potential to change psychological process (attitudes)
  3. Weakens social bonds or encourages deindividuation
  4. Communication limitations make it harder to resolve problems, so annoyance will remain, encouraging more aggressive actions to achieve resolution.

Absent feedback, less information is conveyed between the parties, neither party can adapt quickly or adjust their communication strategies, and statements are made on the basis of less information. As a result, inadvertent insults are more likely, which the other party may experience as more aggressive than intended. (p.14)

Proposition 1: The diminished communication feedback inherent in e-mail, compared to face-to-face and phone interactions, increases the likelihood of conflict escalation. This will occur because conflicts will be less easy to resolve, parties will use tactics that are experienced as heavy by the other side, and the relationship between the parties will be harder to sustain. (p.15)

When group members disagree electronically, they engage in deeper conflict than they do face-to-face.  Conventional behavior such as politeness and acknowledgement of the other people’s view, decreases. (Kiesel and Sproull, 1992, p.110)

The depersonalization that accompanies electronic communication also has been shown to introduce rigidity into communications that can reduce the use of effective problem-solving tactics. (p.18)

Valley and Keros (1900) showed that e-mail negotiators were less likely than face-to-face negotiators to use openness as a strategy (51% versus 87%) or “working together” as a mental model of the negotiation (15% to 26%). Thus, for those communicating about a dispute via e-mail, the lack of social cues may lead to negotiating behaviors that reduce the chance that bargainers will find common ground or solve the problem, making escalation more likely.

Proposition 2: The reduced social cues inherent in e-mail, compared to face-to-face or phone interactions, increase the likelihood of conflict escalation. This will occur because there are fewer reminders of social relations and social rules, resulting in greater bias towards the other party, less empathy, more rigid communications, and less politeness. (P.21)

It helps to spend time thinking carefully about what one wants to say, but the more one is able to draft, redraft, and fine-tune an argument, the more likely it is that one will become psychological invested in the argument and convinced that this argument is correct. (P.22)

Because each party knows that the other has time to revise messages, it is more likely that whatever message gets sent will be perceived as being intended and fully thought-out. It was not an accident, or a slip of the tongue. (P.22)

Proposition 3: The excess attention involved in sending or receiving e-mail messages, compared to face-to-face or phone interactions, increases the likelihood of conflict escalation. This will occur because rumination can occur, creating a more angry mood and amplifying the apparent size of the dispute, and because more elaborate editing is possible, increasing commitment to statements one makes and increasing the other’s perception than any slights made were intended. (P.23)

Lengthy E-mails:

  1. That one side is taking such a long “turn” can be seen as a violation of interaction norms, and experienced as “piling on,” producing a new source of conflict.
  2. The recipient of such a long argument could respond by attending to only one or a few points, or with an overall short statement, making the counterpart feel that their original message was not heard or addressed.
  3. Later points in a bundle of arguments may continue errors contained earlier in the bundle; mistakes thus build upon mistakes so that it is harder to unravel the differences between the parties.
  4. There is reason to believe that only some arguments will be attended to– those that are the most negative.

Proposition 4: Lengthy, one-directional communications, which are more likely when conflicts are handled via e-mail (compared to face-to-face or phone interactions), increases the likelihood of conflict escalation. This occurs by making it harder for the interaction to have a pace that fits norms for social interaction thereby making communications seem more harsh than intended. Moreover, it is more likely that comments made will be ignored or that only those that are more extreme will be remembered. (p.25)


When e-mail is used to manage conflict, participants need to become more self-aware and manage their reactions carefully.

  1. They need to recognize that some perceived insults are not intended and are an artifact of the technology – the other party may be acting based on lack of feedback or social cues, excess rumination, or confusion caused by argument bundling. It also may be true that one’s own interpretation of what is communicated via e-mail is especially biased.
  2. Watch for indications of enhanced aggressiveness. Check yourself when you wish to respond angrily to ensure that that is what you really wish to do.
  3. Recognize that a response made with good intentions can be easily misinterpreted as being more aggressive than intended.
  4. Remind yourself of any relationship you have with the other party, and include in your message reminders of the relationship.
  5. Watch for tendencies towards hyper-rationality – remember that differences occur, and are resolved, through emotion, affect, and relationships, not just logical argument.
  6. Try to generate as much interaction back and forth as possible, and avoid bundling large numbers of arguments together that might overwhelming. Quick feedback will allow both sides to make adjustments before misunderstandings accumulate.


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