How electronic communication can sour a friendship

I just saw my old best friend for the first time after a five-year hiatus in our relationship. The problem? We had a fight by e-mail. ☹ I have always known that we would never have ended our friendship if we’d had our dispute in person or even on the phone. It was completely symptomatic of what happens when you have to interpret or intone people’s meanings electronically. At the time I decided to let her have her space. All five years’ worth. We lived in different parts of the world, by the way, or I would have driven over to her house at the time and made her deal with me face-to-face.

I love e-mail. It’s so convenient. I feel like I spend half my life e-mailing, so it goes to follow that there will be occasional mishaps. The friendship snafu happened to me once before. Many years ago, another old friend misinterpreted my use of CAPITAL LETTERS as me yelling at him. I told him at the time that wasn’t my intention, and that was merely an impassioned sentence combined with gross negligence of e-mail etiquette. He wouldn’t have any of my explanation though. The damage was done in his mind and we’ve completely lost touch now. [SIGNUP]

I still have problems with e-mail now and then. While I was on a trip this spring, my mother called to tell me that my daughter’s ballet school wouldn’t release her costume for the recital until they’d received payment. As far as I knew our payment was up-to-date, and I wouldn’t be back in time to resolve the issue before the recital, so I sent an e-mail to the owner of the school. I thought my note was professional and laid out the facts accurately, but it seemed clear upon my return that this woman took my e-mail personally because she’s been acting like I’m a force to be reckoned with ever since. I think she read a tone into it that was never intended. I could try to appease her, but screw it — let her fear me.

Then the reverse happened when I was in the trenches of being my mother’s beard on One of the potential suitors kept giving her unsolicited e-mail advice about how to find bargains, like free rooms at a dive motel in Atlantic City if you buy tickets to go see some upside-down clown circus sideshow. After he offered to take her for a $5 glass of wine because, I swear, he wrote that he never pays more than that for a drink, “my mom” (me) gently told him by e-mail that she wasn’t really much of a bargain hunter. After conferring, she and I thought it was only fair that he knew this going in. She doesn’t have lots of money, but likes to enjoy herself without worrying if a glass of wine in a restaurant costs more than $5. His response, “What do you mean? You don’t like to get good deals???????!” seemed heavy-handed. Further communication resulted in him seeming defensive. My mother told me to cut him off. This guy didn’t display the sense of humor or lightheartedness we were looking for in a date. Plus he was cheap. “Mom” replied to him saying this wasn’t going to work out; she didn’t think they had enough in common. He replied angrily (I felt) stating: “It’s amazing how people can misinterpret e-mails!” Hmmm. Yes, I couldn’t agree more, but being on the flip side of this, I have to say that I don’t think he left a lot to misinterpret. Just his punctuation alone read as pissed off. You can’t use that many question marks without sounding like you have a problem. Of course my former friend could say the same for my use of CAPITALS, I suppose.

I’ve learned a lot from the stumbles I’ve had with electronic intonation. I would never again let a friendship fall apart over e-mail. If things take a turn for the negative, I pick up the phone now. My best friend and I have patched things up, and we’re both sorry for our mistakes. I think we mutually learned from it and maybe these things happen for the best in the long run. Now I’m just left to wonder if I’ll ever hear back from the elementary school principal regarding some of my issues with the school that I sent in an e-mail back in June. I’m guessing not. He’s probably afraid of me. Maybe I haven’t learned anything after all. ☺