Sunday, June 24 , 2018, 9:01 pm | Fair 65º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 136) — The Medium Is The Message, and Email Is Bad News

Oblique Strategy #31 — The message via email can be “let’s compound your worst thinking with my worst thinking.”

At least 15, possibly 20, years ago I was honored to get a call from Ron Adler, Santa Barbara’s author of the world’s most popular introductory text to the academic study of communications.

He wondered if the availability of email had had any effect on divorce. At the time, email was still too new to me.

I had an address that invited misdirection of messages, and my in-box had collected hundreds, sometimes thousands, of unanswered messages. I couldn’t imagine how it could affect anyone differently than it affected me — an inspiration of guilt and fear.

The last time I talked to Adler, he was on to another topic; he was ahead of any curve I could detect because the effect of email on communication between spouses during divorce is a subject that could reveal interesting information about both divorce and the effect of the means of transmission on the message being transmitted.

Even though some of the brightest people I know (including a professor of computer science at Stanford) have opted out of the exchange of email, it must be the most versatile means for delivering information ever created.

The benefits include speed, a permanent record, ease of distribution to many addresses, the ability to attach documents and images and the capacity to forward a message received from one person on to one or many other people.

Its inherent problems seem incidental: the rare phenomenon of the lost message and the somewhat common phenomenon of the delayed message, which can cause you to compose and send a message in ignorance of the content of the last message sent to you (and the recipient of your messages doesn’t know it was written in ignorance of their last message to you).

As in Russia to the United States in this fictitious example:

“You just dropped an atomic bomb on Vladivostok. Is this because you think we cheated in the Olympics? Are you crazy? Do you know this means the end of the world as we know it?” — V. Putin

“Sorry this response is tardy. Yes, that was our bomb. Total accident. We will make an apology to the world and will pay full reparations. I will personally negotiate the amount of damages we’ll pay with one arm tied behind my back.” — D. Trump

Though Trump’s email was delayed in cyberspace, it’s another story inside the Kremlin: “They are stonewalling. They don’t even say they’re sorry. Get that guy on the phone.”

“Trump, this is Putin. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Putin, this is Trump. I don’t like the tone of your voice.”

“Trump, this is Putin. You are talking to a translator. The tone of voice is hers, so what do you have to say?”

“Putin, I don’t like the tone of her voice either. It sounds like she’s picking on me, so are you and I going to do it mano y mano?”

Putin to advisors, “Mano y mano, what’s that supposed to mean? Is he trying to say ‘mano a mano?’” His advisors note that mano y mano — hand and hand — has been used for comedic effect, but that President Trump probably means mano a mano. Putin makes sure that there isn’t a failure to communicate.

“Trump, are you calling me out?”

“Just like I said. I’ll do it,” Trump says, meaning negotiate as proposed in the delayed email, “with one arm tied behind my back. Your place or mine?”

“Oh, definitely yours.”

These are the last words exchanged before the end of the world as we know it.

This dialogue was intended to demonstrate the problem of the delayed email, which can actually be solved using a tool that tells the sender if his messages are being received and opened by the recipient. Some feel the practice is rude and invasive, but for the prevention of WWIII that’s a small price to pay.

Though not as artful as the subject deserves, the dialog also demonstrates what I think are the real dangers of email; they are psychological in nature.

An email can be like a letter that’s marked “dictated but not read to expedite delivery,” which is an immediate reaction to a negative event — an unfiltered message sent without reflection on the effect its content will have on the person receiving it.

The ubiquity of personal computer and Internet access has bred various sub-cultures with their attendant rules and conventions. “Email users” have a tacit usage agreement that seems to be in the DNA of millennials.

The rest of us learn about its terms from experience. We learn, for example, neither spelling nor punctuation count. The person to whom the message is sent can imply nothing from perfect spelling or erratic punctuation.

In contrast, after I innocently sent one of my children several messages in capital letters she eventually replied, “Dad, why are you yelling at me?” I learned that writing in ALL CAPS is the cyber equivalent of yelling.

Expectation Rapid Exchange (ERE) is another artifact of the sub-culture. It’s not like the conventions of spelling and grammar, which are trumped (I find my use of the word as a verb is increasing) by a meta-convention that neither count.

It is like the meaning of ALL CAPS that says “I’ll yelling at you” in spite of an absence of intent. 

Twice, I’ve unsuccessfully “researched” the “dangers of email” in the hope of finding academic papers that identify and prove what those dangers are.

This “research” hasn’t been conscientious or persistent; there must be papers like this, but I don’t know where, so my designation of the ERE as a potential landmine for people of divorce and their lawyers is based on anecdotal evidence.

There are at least two ways to summarize the effects of the ERE: Ready! Fire! Aim!

Her response to his email was immediate; as such it was emotionally based and disguised in rational form — a style that served her well, even though it infuriated him. She played to an imagined audience made up of people like her and no one like him.

Once the message was sent, she was committed to it and was prepared to defend the probity and accuracy of every word. If presented to her in disguised form, she’d readily identify its content as, under the circumstances, the most provocative possible.

His reply to her response was also immediate. Her message had the qualities he had come to expect and loathe.

He started by describing how her words felt to him, how he felt about her and how he felt about the universe. Then he commented on the fundamental dishonesty of all her cold communications.

He could cut and paste this section from many other messages he had sent to her over the years, but every time he said the same thing, he thought the words acquired a better sting.

He acknowledged to himself that it was unfortunate this subject was still so upsetting to him that he had to end his riff, no matter how well composed, with a string of obscenities.

When he finished a lengthy exposition of his position on the subject at hand — his refusal to let her use the sleeping bags in his possession — every word he had written felt too precious to delete, including the expression of emotions (both direct and obscene).

This was in spite of the fact that he had been told over and over that, “She’s never been very interested in your emotions, and whatever interest she might have had disappeared when she discovered your dalliances.”

He also ignored his attorney’s warning to the effect that the offensiveness of the content (rather than any rule of evidence) was the best predictor of what email a judge was likely to see and consider. 

In other words, it was his first and worst response to her first and worst response. 

All too often the lawyers get easily swept up with the rhythm and tempo of an email exchange between the parties that’s been perfected over the duration of the marriage.

If wisdom were to prevail, a divorcing couple would either never use email or at least limit it to the neutral exchange of information and never to express sentiments, like: I couldn’t sleep last night and would like you to know that I hate your guts and am comforted only by the fact that you are going to toast for eternity in the hottest place in Hell.

Communication by fax from hard copies has most of the advantages of email but, at least for some, handling the paper on which your message is printed is enough to give pause and to ask, do I really want to send this thing? If the question even comes to mind, the answer is an emphatic “No!”

Moreover, for some reason, the ERE doesn’t apply to faxed messages with any of the fury with which it’s attached to email.

I don’t have a fax or I don’t have an extra line for a fax doesn’t work as excuses. A fax machine can be obtained for well under $100 these days, and they can all be rigged to share a phone line. 

Oblique Strategy #32 — Timing is critical and coincidence is more frequent than you realize.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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