Thursday, 28 April 2011


“Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes; and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of the demons.” - Aldous Huxley

I have had a very difficult day at work dealing with a very sensitive and delicate matter regarding disciplinary action directed against a staff member. It is never pleasant to have to deal with these issues, however, they are necessary and in any large organisation there are many workers who do not adhere to policy and may engage in unprofessional behaviour. However, it is sometimes difficult to get the person responsible to admit that they are in the wrong, even if proof is staring at them in the face. The evidence in question today related to emails and the inappropriate use of emails.

The ancient Romans used to remark: “Verba volant, scripta manent”. Translated literally, it means “spoken words fly away, written words remain”. It is originally derived from a speech of Caius Titus in the Roman Senate, who said it wishing to drive home the point that spoken words might easily be forgotten, but written documents can always be produced and be the conclusive evidence in public matters. This is a pointed reference to the reliability of written records, on which agreements should be based, rather than a conversation, which can never be agreed upon as an accurate record of what was actually said, if the two sides involved have a different recollection or interpretation of it.

However, the written word also carries a sting in its tail, as something hastily written in the heat of the moment, under stress, or in frustration and anger and sent to someone via email can cause much harm. The ease with which we communicate nowadays via email, SMS, Twitter, Facebook or even through blogging has made us a little unwary. What we write remains and we can be held accountable to it. A quick note written down hurriedly can give a completely different message to the one intended. Especially as the written word is deficient in terms of facial expression, vocal tone, gesture, and further clarification if your interlocutor expresses their inability to fathom what you are saying or what exactly what you mean.

How many celebrities (with the world’s eye on them) have had serious problems with something they published on Twitter or Facebook? How many stories do we hear of very public apologies and retractions of the thoughtless comments that were written unwisely or in haste? There are numerous occasions where something written has created huge issues not only for the writers, but also for the people referred to in the communication… Written words are powerful weapons, and in untrained hands or in the hands of the unwary, can injure as severely as sharp swords. More so than verbal invective, a written attack is there to hurt the recipient continuously and can come back to haunt the writer, who may have repented writing the offensive missive at a later stage.

I have often felt a need to reply immediately to an email I have received which incenses me or insults me or assumes that I am an idiot. How often have I sat down and responded in like tone or language! However, I always do so in “draft” mode. I never send the reply immediately. I sit on it for a variable period of time, read it, re-read it, change it, reshape it, and more often than not, delete the draft without ever sending it. The draft has served its purpose. I have vented my anger, rid myself of the poison and then, when I am suitably composed and having considered the matter from all angles, I rewrite the reply in a more sedate tone and in a more logical frame of mind. The heat has dissipated and in the coolness of good sense I reply in a fair and logical manner, without offending the offender.

In other cases I write something on paper, seal it in an envelope addressed to myself (this is important!) put it in a drawer and come back to it later, the next day being preferable. When I see the envelope with my name on it, I open it pretending its contents were not written by me, but by someone else – a close colleague, a family member or my partner. I try and read the letter through new eyes, trying to imagine the feelings of these people had they read this letter. I invariably feel embarrassed. On some occasions where I have not torn the letter up immediately, I have felt the need to burn it as tearing it up I did not deem to be destruction enough for it!

Catharsis is a powerful emotion. We all need it, we all feel better after it has worked its magic on us. Writing a hasty response to a vituperative email or letter can prove to produce an even more virulent and damaging effect than the original communication did. However, writing such a response can be cathartic. Just don’t send the blooming thing!

catharsis |kəˈθärsis| noun
1 The process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
2 rare Medicine purgation.
ORIGIN early 19th century (sense 2): From Greek katharsis, from kathairein ‘cleanse,’ from katharos ‘pure.’ The notion of “release” through drama ( sense 1) derives from Aristotle’s Poetics.


  1. Hello Nicholas:
    Oh, the power of the written word. You are so right to highlight the foolishness of responding to anything in anger or in haste since what may take only a moment to say or write can destroy totally a lifetime's good relationship.

    Modern technology allows us to communicate one with another in an instant, and therein lies its strength and its weakness. In the past the physical act of committing pen to paper allowed for an in-built breathing space which is no longer.

    We have tried to find your new picture blog but without success so far.

  2. Thank you, Jane and Lance. Indeed, modern technology and the immediacy of communication has done much to contribute to the rashness of hasty answers.

    My picture blog's URL is:

  3. Oh, what a good idea about the letter in the envelop in the drawer! I especially like the writing your own name on the envelope...
    I ams ure that being impulsive and writing things that you wish you hadn't written and sent is more common now with texting, emails and twittering. All the more reason for cooling down and then writing something.

  4. Hi Nic!!! I can certainly agree with the pain and sorrow caused by these nasty letters. I have received some and even more than words, they can cut deep......

  5. My father is a lawyer and he told me to be very careful with written words.
    I follow his advice.