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Understanding Flamers

In a recent Better Business Writing class, a participant introduced himself as a “flamer.” Although many people in writing classes have complained about flaming, no one had ever identified himself or herself as a person who flames. To have an actual flamer in class was an instructive experience for me, and I wanted to share some thoughts it inspired.

But first a definition: According to Merriam-Webster online, to flame is “to send an angry, hostile, or abusive electronic message.” Therefore, a flamer is one who sends such a message.

Here are a few details about the flamer in my recent business writing class. I will call him “Paulo.”

  • Paulo wanted to be in the class. He had been told that he was “brutal” in his writing, and he wanted to find out what he needed to change.
  • As the class progressed, Paulo worked hard to understand the difference between what he was writing and what we were suggesting. For example, he saw little difference between sentences in pairs like these:–I have no idea what you are talking about.
    –I do not understand yet.

    –What in the world do you mean?
    –What do you mean?

    –Your solution is completely unworkable.
    –The solution you propose may have some drawbacks.


  • By the end of the session, Paulo’s brain was “fried” (that is the word he used). He had struggled for two days with his desire to be clear, direct, and honest, and our feedback that suggested ways to make his message more palatable.

Through working with Paulo, I have some new theories about flamers:

  1. They may have no idea why their tone and language offend people.
  2. They may see little or no difference between their way of expressing something and a more diplomatic way.
  3. They may see their statements as honest rather than brutal, and they may have a difficult time understanding why it is important to soften the truth as they see it.
  4. If they, like Paulo, speak English as a foreign language, differences in tone may not be as clear to them as to native English speakers.
  5. They may be uncomfortable using the reader’s name or greeting the reader, thinking that warmth and friendliness are not appropriate in business writing–or not appropriate for them.
  6. Making their tone and language less harsh may actually be a struggle for them.
  7. They may believe that harshness is warranted when the other person’s work is obviously below standard. Paulo mentioned a situation in which he told his reader something like this: “I would rather have my teeth extracted than do what you suggested.”

Before working with Paulo, I had thought of flamers as people who enjoy heaping on the verbal abuse. Now I see another side to the much maligned group. Not all of them are like Paulo, of course. But perhaps many of them are.

I would never suggest tolerating verbal abuse. But the next time I receive an email whose tone seems harsh, insensitive, or arrogant, I am going to think of Paulo. Doing that will help me get beyond the tone to recognize the value of the writer’s ideas.

Please share your own ideas about flaming and flamers.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

2 comments on “Understanding Flamers”

  • Matthew, thanks for the comment. I also wrote about that research, on March 6. People in classes are amazed to learn that not even a winking emoticon makes their meaning clear. I myself was most surprised that when it comes to recognizing emotion, people who know each other fare no better than strangers. Incredible!

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