How do you become a Vulcan when reading email?
January 10, 2012 5:24 PM   Subscribe

"I'm a Pantera's box you do not wanna open."-filter: Looking for work advice about not reacting to my perceived stories about the intent and methods of communication of my peers. Details inside...

Often I receive an e-mail at work from a peer who is not the best at communicating verbally with others. He's a yeller, and somewhat of a jerk. What bothers me more is that he also supervises a team, and processes that my direct reports are very involved with. Let's say they are the production team and my team is the operations team.

Earlier today I was venting to my boss about the content of one of those e-mails and my boss said that I need to stop telling myself stories about the intent of the email. I don't know how to do that. I get a very strong reaction to his, and several others e-mails.

For example, I might read something, see a bunch of CAPITAL letters in the middle and think he's "yelling." But even more, I might say "Why is this guy picking a fight about something, when we should be putting our clientele first?" after reading a statement that is very anti-client and very pro-production status quo. This is something I often deal with in interactions with sales partners as well. Their communications are short, most likely due to the nature of their fast-paced work; however, I often react to what I 'detect' is a brusque manner.

How can I learn to detach myself from what I'm reading? I'm a very ISFJ person who tends to related to people on an emotional level. I get very tired at work when I react to situations like this, so I'd really appreciate your advice.
posted by Draccy to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Pantera's box? That doesn't even make sense. I guess the guy means Pandora's?

Anyway, if you have to work with the guy you have to find some way to deal with his communication oddities. It doesn't sound like your boss is much interested in helping you find a solution.

Is getting a different job--inside the company or at a different one--a possibility?
posted by dfriedman at 5:28 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: It's a quote from a movie...
posted by Draccy at 5:35 PM on January 10, 2012

This is Pantera's box.

What your boss means is that you should learn to glean useful or relevant information from your coworker's email and disregard the parts that are irrelevant.
posted by Nomyte at 5:36 PM on January 10, 2012 [5 favorites]

1. Always think the best of people - always give them the benefit of the doubt.
2. Always be professional - it doesn't matter whether someone is trying to pick a fight, you're going to be as helpful and professional as you always are. And as per (1), you assume that no fight-picking is happening anyway. (Maybe he's just trying to look out for his guys and is frustrated, who knows, who cares, it could be anything, so just be professional.)
posted by -harlequin- at 5:38 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am excited that someone else remembers Mystery Men, but you and I may be the only two, Draccy.

And I recommend an "as if" stance. Read his mails and respond to them "as if" he was being professional. Anything else just wastes your time. Second-guessing assholes is not a trap you want to fall into.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:44 PM on January 10, 2012 [11 favorites]

I used to copy and paste super-aggro ALL CAPS BULLSHIT BULLYING EMAILS into Excel and de-capify them, for what it's worth.
posted by nevercalm at 5:50 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

I might say "Why is this guy picking a fight about something, when we should be putting our clientele first?"

I'm not clear if this is something that you literally speak aloud after reading the email, but quit doing that.

Your boss can't read your mind, if you don't say these things and vent to your boss it will look like the problem is solved. You have a choice about what you say, and your boss would rather you didn't choose to vent to him.

Greasemonkey maybe? Or you could try reading some sort of flamefest thing before work, in comparison these emails will seem friendly.
posted by yohko at 5:56 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Try Googling "ladder of inference." Ask yourself how much of what you're reacting to is based on what he is literally saying, and how much is really your assumption or inference.

For example, you actually don't know whether all caps means yelling to him. Deciding that he's picking a fight and that he doesn't care about putting the clients first are even higher rungs on the ladder of inference.

The point is not that you should never drawn inferences. It's that it's helpful to be aware when you're doing it and able to climb back down the ladder rather than blaming other people for your assumptions.
posted by Gender is the Soul's Pajamas at 5:56 PM on January 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

Make an effort to talk to him, in person if possible, at least until you get a better grasp of his communication style. Walk over to his desk or get him on intercom, and talk to him politely and request clarification on a point or two (don't argue - just ask - or update him to say that X has been taken care of, thanks, please get back to me if there are issues). It will make him feel you are listening to him, and you may discover that he comes off badly but he means well. It will help create a more personal connection, kind of like this.

Sometimes people who come off badly are just so focused on doing their job well and turning out a good product that they forget that other people are on their side, working with them, instead of gremlins trying to thwart them. They tend to value respect and efficiency instead of "niceness". Humanize yourself to him. If he doesn't tone down, you might take his style less personally.
posted by griselda at 6:00 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I was talking to some co-workers just today about this, and they mentioned a conscious effort to use 'MRI' or 'most respectful interpretation'. One of them said that she just keeps imagining what scenarios might mitigate the jerk style of the email until she can respond with sympathy: she mentioned an email where she was finally imagining the guy at home with a sick baby and his wife out of town for the week but too busy to take the day off, so he was angry and frustrated and sending short emails while rushing to get back to where the kid just threw up.

So if you can't get out of the habit of making assumptions/inferences about what he was thinking when he sent the email, try and replace it with a deliberate story to yourself about what he /could/ have been thinking, to make yourself feel better.
posted by jacalata at 6:08 PM on January 10, 2012 [17 favorites]

Best answer: These are great suggestions. Another that sometimes works for me: Pay attention to the voice in which you read the email to yourself. It can be a good exercise (and occasionally hilarious) to read an abrupt email in your head as if it were spoken in a therapist-like tone of soothing calmness, or a sultry tone, or a pathetically pleading tone... Anything to interrupt the "jerk" tone that might have become the default for him in your head.
posted by ceiba at 6:13 PM on January 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is the kinda touchy-feely answer that I would hate, if I were you.
But some casual instruction and practice in Zen meditation really improved my ability to recognize when I was having an emotional reaction to something, and how to react in a more intentional, conscious fashion, without rising to the emotional bait.
posted by browse at 7:12 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Cockney accent, read out loud, where allcaps signals a sudden temporary switch to Jamaican.
posted by prefpara at 8:20 PM on January 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

The suggestions I've read above are excellent.

I do tech support for university faculty and staff. When someone is yelling at me on the phone, I can usually handle it and talk them down. However, snippy and snarky emails used to make my blood pressure rise. jacalata's advice is somewhat how I try to view things lately. I don't know what is going on for the client. Heck, sometimes we have faculty who are on the other side of the planet and they are completely freaking out. Understandably so, once you know the story.

All caps might be EMPHASIS to them, and not yelling. So, at work, I try to view it as someone yelling PLEASE HELP! with the problem. Because of the academic cycle, I also keep in mind if it's finals week or whatever, because there is a natural ebb and flow of stress on a campus. Similarly, in an office environment, there are deadlines that cause similar stress (I used to be a technical writer and we had huge deadlines twice a year for our biggest client that felt a lot like finals week).

I think my biggest lesson was to learn to not take things personally unless I was personally responsible for a mishap. People have a huge variety of communication styles... verbal, written, txt spk, body language, etc. If I am responsible, I own up to it and get it resolved.

My best advice, especially in the case of your Pantera's Box example, is to try to develop a reasonable sense of humor about the general humanity of people. I have seen some crazy emails from some of the most brilliant, pHd-having, stressed-out, and generally kind folks. (They also sometimes yell at me on the phone, as I mentioned earlier.) They are human beings and share our fallible human condition.

I learned hard lessons about compassion in a practical sense, and it really, really helps.

When someone is consistently a raging A-hole, a healthy sense of humor about life in general never hurts. Do you have the chance to talk about work stuff with a loved one or even other coworkers? In my experience, by the time you get to the end of the "this scenario was completely sideways" venting story, you might find it funny. Because, really, it is funny in the long run, most of the time.

There are the trite sayings:
Water off a duck's back.
No one is perfect.
Walk a mile in another person's shoes.

and my favorite...
posted by lilywing13 at 11:23 PM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Was your boss saying you need to learn how to not tell yourself stories, or that you need to learn how to stop telling yourself stories? Most advice here addresses the first (how to not tell them initially), so I'll address the second (how to stop once they start). Learn how to stop those stories from going around and around your mind. Walk around the block, run up and down the stairs in your building, open the window, take a dance break, check your bank account, recite the alphabet backwards, make fun of him in a quick email to your mom, wash your face, clean off your desk, have a coworker cast a cleansing spell over you... figure out what thing resets your brain, then do that when this is driving you crazy. It might take some experimentation to find what really works. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 12:21 AM on January 11, 2012

Do you have time to write the points of the email down in your own language, and then respond to the information?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:20 AM on January 11, 2012

Best answer: My version of 'MRI' or 'most respectful interpretation' is Assume Good Intent. He's a colleague, and you have to work with him, so give him the benefit of the doubt, at least until you understand him better. When you reply, think of yourself as a role model for him, and be extra clear, concise and thoughtful, always a good idea, anyway.
posted by theora55 at 6:53 PM on January 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

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