It’s all in the intonation
If there is one lesson I can never seem to learn, it’s that e-mail is the absolutely worst way to resolve a conflict. The reason, of course, is that it is virtually impossible to ensure that the recipient reads your e-mail in the same (hopefully conciliatory) tone in which you wrote it. In fact, you can pretty much guarantee that they won’t.
There is, of course, a highly reliable way to convey tone of voice. It’s called the telephone. Or face to face. And if some of us were smart, they’d use them a LOT more.
While almost all of my friends are reasonably punctual, I have two long-time friends who are chronically late. One of them is consistently a half hour behind schedule so that has been easy to resolve: when we meet for lunch, I arrive 25 minutes after the appointed time so that when she rushes in breathlessly five minutes later, I’ve barely had time to look at the menu.
The other one has been more problematical. One of the downsides of cell phones is that people like this friend who are punctuality-challenged can now call you 20 minutes after they’re supposed to be there to tell you that they are “running late.” Before, she might have at least made some effort to get there on time. OK, not much effort, but a little. But now I never know when she’s going to show up – anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour past due. She invariably decides to do a “quick” errand on the way to lunch that equally invariably ends up taking way longer than she thinks. Twice, I’ve finally ordered and finished eating by the time she arrived.
I fully admit I am not the most patient person when it comes to waiting. So when this friend set up a lunch date at Finch’s recently, I thought (why, why did I think this??) I’d see if I could resolve this by e-mail. Warning: Readers, Do Not Try This At Home! E-mail from Inga (written in a normal somewhat-pleading voice:): Looking forward to seeing you at Finch’s on Tuesday! Lots to catch up on! I am wondering if any errands could possibly be done after lunch rather than before? As you know, I have an appointment at 1:30, so I really want to maximize our time together!
What she reads: YOU COULDN’T SHOW UP ON TIME FOR YOUR OWN FUNERAL, YOU LOATHSOME TURD!
What she replies: Are you trying to say something? I don’t think I like your tone.
Inga (to self): You moron! You knew better! Prediction: Even though you think the issue is hers, you’re going to end up apologizing.
What I reply: Well, I know you sometimes do errands on your way to lunch and they often take longer than you expected through no fault of your own (post office is totally impossible!) Just hoping to see you as close to 12:00 as possible since I have to leave by 1:15.
What she reads: SHOW UP AT 12:00 OR I’LL BLOW UP YOUR FRIGGIN’ BEEMER!
What she replies: I ALWAYS arrive in as timely a fashion as possible. I can hardly be expected to control post office lines and traffic, Inga!
Inga (never knowing when to leave bad enough alone): I see you so infrequently these days that I hate it when we have to put in a rush order for lunch and bolt it down. I confess I’m also not the most patient person when it comes to waiting!
What she reads: INGA IS A TOTALLY ANAL UPTIGHT TYPE-A CONTROL FREAK WHO GOES APE S—T IF SOMEONE IS TWO MINUTES LATE!
What she replies: I have unavoidably been a few minutes late on a couple of occasions. But if it is so important to you that I show up PRECISELY on the DOT of 12:00 then I will run stop signs if necessary. Happy?
INGA (to self): You knew better. You KNEW better. You are a total idiot! NOTHING is ever resolved by e-mail!
What I reply: No, don’t run stop signs. I’m looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday!
What she reads: I’D BETTER MAKE SURE INGA DOESN’T POISON MY SALAD IF I GET THERE AT 12:03.
What she replies: It just really offends me to be attacked this way.
Inga (to self): Uh-oh! NOW you’ve done it! If you say “sorry”, she’s going to read it as a sarcastic “sorry”, as in “Well, SORRY!” In fact, anything you write at this point is going to be read in a hostile tone of voice. But no reply at all will be deemed as even more hostile. There is one, and only one, possible response.
What I write: Bring grandchildren pictures!
When she arrives: 25 minutes late.
* Look for La Jolla resident Inga’s lighthearted looks at life in The La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org