Monday, November 13, 2023
As I reflect on the current contentious world environment, I cannot help but note the impact that electronic communication has on maintaining quality personal and professional relationships. Although it sometimes may seem that business law professors are less impacted by domestic and global events, our work's engagement with broader economic, social, and political issues and our individual intersectionalities can keep us in the throes of it all. As someone who cares deeply about (and believes in the power of) human relationships and interpersonal communication (leading me to co-design and co-teach small group communication course for our leadership curriculum), I offer some food for thought here.
We all enjoy free speech. And I respect that right deeply. I bear a tattoo on my body (an open "speech bubble" on my right scapula) as a symbol of that belief.
I also believe in the careful, considerate exercise of that important right. I have written a bit about this before, in another blog space, arguing for well considered communication. My conclusion in that post?
Just because a person can say something in the exercise of their rights to free speech, does not mean that the person should say something. And if someone chooses to say something, the way in which the communication is made can make all the difference. Through mindful collegiality, Ubuntu, civility, and other conduct reinforcing inclusion, a lawyer-leader can motivate action and loyalty in and outside their law practice.
Although I wrote that post back in February of 2022, what I say in the post still rings true to me.
Electronic communication seems to be an enabler of suboptimal behaviors in this regard. I am, of course, not the first to observe this. But I see relationships falling apart right and left (political pun acknowledged) because of people's choices in using electronic communication, especially (although not exclusively) in group settings. Most recently, as some of you readers know, this has been happening on the Association of American Law Schools Section on Women in Legal Education listserv. This has saddened me. That group, and the listserv that binds us, has historically been an inclusive space. I hope we can revive that ethos of inclusion, even as long-term members of the section determine to disengage from communication in that forum.
There is so much information on the Internet about etiquette in electronic communication. In the course I taught this semester, my co-instructor and I assigned some of those publications. We had a robust discussion with the students. Some expressed their surprise at the way certain words and phrases in emails and text messages may impact the reader in unintended ways. We discussed whether to communicate electronically at all, and if so, how. We assigned out-of-class work on related issues. I felt good about the information we conveyed and the discussions we had. That positive feeling was borne out when one of the students in the course used the material in another course (Corporate Finance) in which I also am the instructor.
I wish we had covered listservs in our course. I plan to add that to future iterations of the course. I have discovered that many organizations, undoubtedly struggling with the threat that listservs will disrupt group relations, have formalized rules about their usage. This seems like a sensible approach to help avoid (or at least limit) the disrespect that may be shown to listserv managers and moderators in the event of a conflict over the appropriate use of the listserv. For example, the American Bankruptcy Institute has listserv guidelines. They provide instruction on best practices (including a statement on topic scope) and also on prohibited practices. Among the prohibited practices is one that seems relevant to communications I now notice more frequently.
Subjects Generating More Heat Than Light
Occasionally, a subject will come up that generates lots of posts because of its controversial nature. If the discussion threatens to overwhelm our mailboxes or becomes nasty, we will ask that those interested in discussing it further take the discussion off the list.
Do not challenge or attack others. The discussions on the lists are meant to stimulate conversation, not to create contention. Let others have their say, just as you may.
The guidelines also include instructions on brevity, advise users how to alert readers to message content and length, and caution folks to "[o]nly send a message to the entire list when it contains information that everyone can benefit from." Other websites I reviewed offered similar guidance (in some cases using some of the same wording).
I offer all of this up for what it may be worth to you. I am committing myself to working on being the best group member I can be because I value my relationships with members of the groups to which I belong. These people have helped me ride over many bumps in my personal and professional lives over the years. They have supported me in handling stress caused by deaths, recessions, bullying/verbal abuse, a global financial crisis, a global pandemic, a number of wars and political conflicts, and much more. I know my students will benefit more from my teaching if I can manage that stress. I also aim to teach them some of what I have learned about the importance of relationships as opportunities arise.
Moreover, as I earlier noted here on the BLPB, I am writing an essay that connects with this topic based on a presentation I gave at the annual Business Law Prof Blog symposium, "Connecting the Threads," last month. The essay, Business Lawyer Leadership: Valuing Relationships, will cover the connection of business law and lawyering to relationship building and maintenance. It will be published in a forthcoming (spring 2024) volume of Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law that will feature works presented at the symposium together with faculty and student commentary. I will post on the essay and the volume once online access is available.