Technology and Emotions- Are Text Message Apologies Acceptable?

Last Updated Nov 29, 2010 7:15 AM EST

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, few topics of discussion caused more debate (other than the timeless and unsolvable "stuffing inside or outside the bird" argument) than what was going on with the Tennessee Titans football team. For the uninitiated, a long-simmering conflict between coach Jeff Fisher and quarterback Vince Young blew up and was supposedly resolved when Young made a long, heartfelt and detailed apology- by text message. The topic at bar stools and kitchen tables around the country: was it sufficient?

Some, like ESPN blogger David Fleming, felt that this is a new age and Jeff Fisher should accept the apology as it was intended. Jeff Fisher, on the other hand, feels that apologizing face to face is more of a "man thing" and doesn't put much stock in the apology.

While I'm admittedly old school when it comes to technology and human connections I have tried to hear both sides of the argument and since I don't have the foggiest clue what's really going on (I only follow football enough that no one questions my manhood) I've tried to identify the challenges here,rather than pass judgment. Here's what's going on:

  • The use of technology vs. face-to-face communication is, to some extent, generational. My 17 year-old daughter has been known to text downstairs to ask when dinner is ready instead of using the time-honored tradition of shouting like a crazy person (which worked well enough for her parents and their parents). After a lot of calm, reasonable discussion -- and a few heated shouting matches-- I have reached the conclusion that many younger people don't consider texting a diminished form of communication and hold it on a par with spoken communication. So you have to ask, was the apology sincere and was Young offering a heart-felt olive branch? Unless your ESP is better than mine we have no way of knowing. Which brings us to the next point...
  • It doesn't much matter what you intend if the other person doesn't accept it in the spirit intended. If you're the sender of a message you should take responsibility for its successfully reaching the audience. If your audience speaks Finnish, and the apology comes in Urdu -- no matter how well-meaning, it won't mean much. If you know your audience is an "old school" kind of person and you send them a message in a format they don't much care for to start with, do you really expect it to get a fair , calmly reasoned acceptance? After all these years do you really think Vince Young didn't know the coach's feelings about texting vs. face time? On the other hand, if you know someone is defensive or has a different communication style, coach, do you think yelling louder will work this time?
  • It's not like they don't have physical proximity to each other,which raises questions about why Young chose to text. For those of us with remote team members, it's sometimes unavoidable to send messages over the ether. Time zones and schedules just don't allow for constant face-to-face or even voice-to-voice communication. That wasn't the case here. They have constant close contact- so close that they see each other naked in the shower (see your company's HR manual for the best way to handle THAT one). The inability to schedule face time wasn't the problem. Now, maybe Vince Young wanted to make sure that he said everything he wanted to say and felt writing it out was the best way to make that happen. Maybe he wanted a permanent document of what was said. Or maybe, as Fisher suggests, he's not man enough to look the coach in the eye. Maybe the QB felt the coach wouldn't shut up long enough to let him say what he had to say uninterrupted (a not unreasonable fear in this case, apparently). There isn't one sports radio idiot in the country who can say categorically what took place in the minds of two other human beings.
  • Which is exactly the point- if the relationship is beyond salvage then the delivery method is only part of the problem. By all accounts this feud had been building up for a while, it was only a matter of when it would blow up and how bad the fallout would be. At that point little things take on huge significance, motives are suspect to the point where everything that happens fits a preconceived worst case scenario and real human connection doesn't happen even though both parties go through the motions.
Since I am neither Vince Young nor Jeff Fisher I don't have a public position on this one. Ask me over a frosty beverage and I'll give you an uninformed earful. What I do know is that this isn't the last time we'll hear about the method of an apology being delivered being at least as important as the content. It's a fact of life for managers in the new workplace.

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