Suffering from ... Cyber-disinhibition?

Everyone becomes something different on a computer. But you want to nip symptoms in the bud before it becomes a problem.

by Helen Kirwan-Taylor,
Last Updated: 15 Nov 2010
Coined by the psychologist Daniel Goleman, cyber-disinhibition is what happens to humans separated from others by a computer screen.

Shy people become flirtatious and quiet people noisy, and bullies are big beneficiaries of the disorder. At work, social intercourse has its distinctive patterns dictated by political correctness, office rules and normal social etiquette. But on e-mail no-one's watching.

What's more, people think they're being playful, provocative and witty when they're not. According to a study led by Nicholas Epley at the University of Chicago and Justin Kruger at New York University, most of us get the tone of e-mail wrong more than half the time.

One person's idea of a joke can turn into an international viral scandal and the next thing you know you're being shown the door. Flirting is accelerated madly on e-mail, but the worst culprits are those bullies, whose identity can easily be hidden. Every company is trying to cope with the epidemic, but as soon as they shut down one portal, another opens up.

The cure seems obvious: make people speak to each other in person. Let them blush to show they're embarrassed, or smile to show they get the joke. A little inhibition, in short, is no bad thing.

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