“Speak when you are angry – and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
Laurence J. Peter
Although email, text messages and other forms of electronic communication are a necessary evil, I am a big fan of letters. While clearly text messages have their place, they are rarely a good forum for meaningful communication about issues relating to your family law matter.
The biggest problem with electronic communication is the absence of human context. As a species we have developed the ability to communicate complex concepts and emotions; but that communication is not just verbal or written. It has been said that up to 90% of our communication is nonverbal – our facial expressions, hand gestures, tone and body language all play a huge role in expressing what we feel and intend to communicate. Emails and text messages are obviously devoid of any such nonverbal communication. It is for that reason that so many electronic communications are misunderstood or misinterpreted, resulting in anger, resentment and frustration.
And the fact that electronic communication does not require the sender to face his or her recipient in person adds to the willingness of most people to say hurtful things.
When my daughters were about 12 years old, AOL Instant Messenger had become all the rage. Neither they nor I were familiar with this brave new world of instant written communication.I could hardly pry them away from the computer and it seemed that virtually all of their friends were now . . . well, virtual. Undoubtedly, many painful and nasty things were said under the cloak of anonymity. However, many a tear was shed over what appeared to me to be completely innocuous communications. In the tortured minds of my sweet adolescent daughters, virtually every comment was an insult.
It is, of course, true that a written letter also fails to incorporate elements of nonverbal communication. However, they generally tend to be far more thought through than the average text message or email. If there is something important to talk about with regard to your children, your spouse or your case, dignify the importance of the message by either communicating in person, through a counselor or in a well thought-out written communication.
There is something about the instantaneous nature of text messages (and, to some extent, emails) that tempts us to use them to respond when we are angry or hurt. When we receive a text message that seems insulting or derogatory, we rarely ask ourselves if the sender meant to say what we heard. Worse, we can instantly strike back with a nasty text message of our own.
Text messages are regular fodder for court exhibits in my practice. It is because they are often not well thought through that they often reflect the raw emotion, pent-up frustration and sheer animosity of the litigants. In other words, people often say stupid things in their text messages and these often become Exhibit A in their court case. And I’m not the only family law attorney doing this. 92% of AAML divorce attorneys cited an increase in cases using evidence taken from smart phones during the past three years. In that same survey, 94% noted an increase in text message evidence. And, as discussed in a prior post, 81% of AAML members say they have seen increased use of evidence from social networking websites during the past five years, mostly from Facebook.
Angry electronic communications are often used in court to show the inability of two parents to coparent their children, to rebut other testimony or to establish a litigant’s state of mind or attitude towards the other party. So long as the text messages are properly transcribed and complete, there is little your attorney can do to prevent them from being shown to the judge.
Aside from the impact that such communications can have on your case, try to think of the impact your communications will have on your relationship with your ex, particularly when children are involved. I have rarely seen an angry series of text messages between two parties that resolved a dispute or convinced one of the parties that their position was somehow irrational or wrong. So really: what’s the point?
Think before you text. If you really have something important to say, stop, take a deep breath, and write a letter.