Flame on, flame off – rude and aggressive communication

Being told that giving fair warning about rude and disrespectful behavior then justified the behavior was astonishing and entirely unacceptable to me.

Flame and matches

It may be hard for many to believe, but at one time the Internet was not pervasive and there was a start-up phase through which all companies and individuals had to go for such tools as e-mail. Things that are so commonplace and expected today were, at one time, novel, and we all had to undergo a learning curve. I felt that I was learning a lot every day, and, in fact, made learning about using the Internet a daily objective. Some in our company were very knowledgeable about the Internet. They had used it in university research environments and would generously share their perspectives and conventions.

Out-of-control behavior

One day I received a fairly broadly distributed e-mail – broadly distributed within our company, that is. There in the middle of a reasoned argument were the words FLAME ON and FLAME OFF. What appeared in between those words was an attack, the likes of which I had never seen before. Just as quickly as the rant started, it ended. It was abundantly clear that FLAME ON signaled the start and FLAME OFF signaled the end of literally out-of-control behavior.

Put an end to that

I went immediately to the author and asked her to explain the e-mail. With a mild manner she told me that within the community of university users of the Internet it was acceptable to give fair warning that what was to follow would be unfiltered and that it could be wild and ranting. As long as a warning was given, it was common practice to let go a tirade and then simply go back to a normal, respectful demeanor. This was an astonishing revelation to an Internet neophyte like me. How some could codify rude and inappropriate behavior and deem it acceptable through this mechanism was beyond me. Needless to say, with the behavior laid out for all to see, we made it known explicitly throughout the company that this so-called accepted behavior would not be tolerated. It was the first and last time that I saw this convention used in e-mail communication.

Confounding perspective

I have never stopped marveling at how people think that they can excuse or justify bad behavior in a particular situation. We have conventions, norms and manners that are intended to guide our behavior in person, over the phone and in e-mail. We have standards of dress for a variety of situations including at work, after work, for an informal party, for a formal party or at the beach. We have long-established policies and practices for dealing with a myriad of employment situations. Then someone decides to blow that up in favor of a Wild West approach to interaction – anything goes as long as the communicator gives fair warning. Amazing and unacceptable.

I have often heard people say that they exhibit their worst behavior within their families or with their loved ones. The excuse is simple – they are being themselves on an unfiltered basis and just let everything spew out. This is astonishing. Imagine – behaving the worst with the people who you purport to love the most? I don’t get that. Wouldn’t we all be best served if we saved our best behavior for the people who we love the most? That would seem reasonable and rational to me.

In my world, there is no allowance for FLAME ON and FLAME OFF. I can’t give myself a free pass for rude and bad behavior, and I don’t accept that from others either.

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Nancy Knowlton
Nancy Knowlton is co-founder and CEO of Nureva Inc. and previously the co-founder and CEO of SMART Technologies. She writes about education, entrepreneurship, business management, technology, innovation and other passions.