I’m sure everyone has experienced at least one instance of bullying by email, text, or Facebook. It’s a lot easier to be mean to someone when they’re not standing in front of you, and with the increasing use of technology as a means of mainstream communication, we’re seeing a rise in horrible conduct – and not just by adolescents. It’s also happening in the workplace.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2014 U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey found that 6.5 million workers said they were affected by bullying in the workplace. Sixty-one percent of respondents said their employer failed to react to abusive conduct. As a result, the bullying stopped once those targeted either quit, were forced out or were fired. Twenty-nine percent reported that they contemplated suicide.
I’ll never forget an incident a few years ago with a senior executive who had a reputation for passive-aggressive behavior and who became upset by my email response on some issue. She responded angrily in ALL CAPS for several paragraphs (and included several other executives on her response), and I still remember the awful feeling in the pit of my stomach over the interaction. This person was clearly “yelling” at me, and when I responded by pointing this out (privately of course), the CAPS and the language in the next response became even more furious. I finally made the trip up a couple of floors to speak directly to her and talk the issue out like adults.
Why does ALL CAPS come across as shouting? Professor Paul Luna, Director of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the UK’s University of Reading, said, “All-capitals provide visibility—maximum size within a given area, and that works online, too. All-caps in an email looks like shouting because when someone is shouting, you’re aware of the shout, and not the nuance,” Luna continued. “ALL-CAPS FILL THE SPACE, so there’s an element of feeling that the message is crowding out everything else.”
In Writing in All Caps Is Like Shouting, Heinz Tschabitscher says, “One of the cardinal rules of writing online, whether in email, forums or instant messages, is to never just use all capital letters. This is known as writing in ALL CAPS. If you make this mistake, you might quickly be told to stop shouting or even booted out of a game or forum.”
And Kathryn Vercillo argues that there are other negative assumptions coming from the use of ALL CAPS in In What People Think When You Type in All Caps, including:
- People assume that the writer is trying to demand attention;
- People may assume that you have a lack of skill with technology;
- People may assume that you are an immature writer;
- People may assume that you are lazy;
- People may wonder if you are trying to be a rebel.
And if this weren’t enough, according to Miles Tinker, renowned for his landmark work, Legibility of Print, using ALL CAPS inhibits the reader’s ability to effectively digest the information one is trying to convey:
“All-capital print greatly retards speed of reading in comparison with lower-case type. Also, most readers judge all capitals to be less legible.”
And this is only one type of cyberbullying. A report by the consulting firm CQR states that cyberbullying includes but is not limited to:
- Malicious or threatening emails, text messages, and tweets;
- Electronic communications that contain jokes about ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other topic that would make an individual uncomfortable;
- Public shaming via a mass email;
- Sharing embarrassing, offensive, or manipulated images or videos of an individual;
- Spreading lies and gossip – social networking sites and blogs are usually the most common ways people become victim of another person’s cyberbullying.
In 2008, the American Psychological Association estimated that U.S. businesses lose a staggering $300 billion per year due to incidences of workplace bullying. More recently, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that one-third of American workers suffer from chronic stress and estimated that the number of workdays lost to mental-health-related absences adds up to $27 billion each year.
I know first hand that following the ALL CAPS email onslaught I received from that senior executive, I avoided future contact with her when and if at all possible. And I spent a fair amount of time discussing with colleagues how to effectively handle the situation and move forward. This is really unfortunate since she was one of the brightest and savviest executives I have ever known – but that point was completely lost by the approach she took to giving me feedback.
A loss for the company, and a great lesson for employers.