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Evaluating a person's position without attending to the content of that position is unconstructive. Sometimes (too often) email exchanges turn nasty. What may start as a sincere discussion of ideas can quickly turn in to a battle of words when one or more of the conversants feel they have been treated with disrespect. These angry exchanges are called flames. Flames typically involve verbal abuse, such as insult and personal attack. There are various theories as to why flaming is so prevalent in e-mail. I have noticed that flaming in a class e-mail environment is often preceded by types of comments that I call sparks.

I believe that these ordinary comments tend to make some parties in the conversation feel that their views are being unfairly devalued. When that happens, a person may feel like striking back with words. And e-mail can be responded to so immediately that the anger carries the message. Of course, the other party may be affected enough to respond in kind, and so starts the flaming. Here is an example of a message that contains several sparks:

I find it hard to believe that an otherwise intelligent person would say anything like that. You can believe whatever you want, but why subject the rest of us to your little thoughts? As to your argument, all I can say is; get a life! I bet that if we took a vote, the vast majority in this class will disagree with you completely. By the way, apparently you don't know the difference between "conscience" and "conscious." Try using a dictionary for a change! Have you even experienced any of the things you are talking about? Obviously not. THINK ABOUT IT.

Now, taken all together, these comments make a pretty nasty note. But any one of these placed in an e-mail message can serve as a spark to ignite a flame. Can you think of instances from your own experiences where certain patterns of words used in particular circumstances leave you feeling that your ideas were disvalued?

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