Email Communication Continues To Be Misunderstood

from the flame-this dept

As we have noted here before, emails are very easily misinterpreted, which explains why online flame wars are infamously common. With the emergence of social neuroscience new findings have been published to further explain why emails often result in misunderstandings. Email is at a distinct disadvantage since it lacks the sensory richness of a face-to-face conversation. In a face-to-face conversation, we can judge the tone of the conversation by body language, gestures and tone of voice. So, left with only the words in an email, we are left to interpret the tone of the emails in a vacuum. But, never fear, there are ways to improve email communication. Since studies have shown that misunderstandings occur less between people who are familiar with each other, Professor Clay Shirky recommends to start communication face-to-face and then move on to email. Even saying “Hi” every morning goes a long way to facilitating the social glue. Long touted as the true “killer app” of the Internet, email has definitely improved communications — that said, it’s critical to recognize the differences of this medium and be sensitive to the challenges that it brings.

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Comments on “Email Communication Continues To Be Misunderstood”

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Griff (profile) says:

10 Rules for better email

A few simple rules to make email better

1. Never use a subject that gives away what the msg is about.

2. If forwarding an email, leave in all the irrelevant stuff and don’t change the subject appropriately.

3. Copy lots of people in and make no distinction between To:(you need to read this) and cc:(for info only, feel free to ignore). let them guess.

4. If answering someone’s questions, never quote the question to help them remember what they asked.

5. If distributing a really big file to lots of people, attach it rather than just forwarding a link.

6. Write whole sentences in capitals for emphasis. People love that.

7. Only ever look at what appears in the preview window, and reply to emails based just in what you see in the first paragraph rather than reading to the end first.

8. Reply to questions with other questions rather than trying to give comprehensive answers. This way you can have the maximum possible conversations ongoing at the same time.

9. Never use unambiguous date formats (like “6 Sep 07”) when dealing across the atlantic – it spoils the fun.

10. Never take 10 seconds more to explain something more clearly to save the reader 10 minutes of research. Your time is the most valuable there is.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Only idiots

Ditto to that. There are PLENTY of ways to imply certain emotions through written words. Granted, there is a degree of interpretation involved, but what’s to say that interpretation isn’t involved during face-to-face conversations as well? For certain people, I have just as hard a time “reading” them in person as I do reading their emails. And don’t forgot, some of the most heartfelt love confessions throughout history came in the form of handwritten letters, and they certainly managed to get their point across. I don’t think it’s the medium that is flawed at all, but rather the individual who’s trying to communicate.

barrenwaste (profile) says:

Don’t load it all on the individual who did the writing. First thing to think about….people can’t read. It’s true. Look at the average reading level accross the world and you will be disapointed and depressed. Cross that with the average attention span and it’s no wonder there are misunderstandings. Imagine, if you will, a sixth grader with the attention span of a godfish on speed and you pretty much have the majority of the morons who make these misunderstandings flourish. It works both ways. After all, you can’t communicate meaningfully with a goldfish, now can you?

Eliot says:

Not only idiots

First, Griff, I agree totally with your list. You have indeed listed some of the big things that people mess up with. But you left out inappropriate jokes and complicated innuendoes … there needs to be an overabundance of those.

Second, not only idiots make mistakes. Its probably a more recent occurrance where this has really been an issue — trying to convey tongue-in-cheek humor via text is … complicated.

Its all about what you say and to whom you say it.

Craig (user link) says:

We didn't need "neuroscience" to tell us this

This was all first hashed out back in the early 1980’s when the theory of “media richness” was first proposed. Basically, it says what the summary above says, but was offered up well over 20 years ago and had nothing to do with “social neuroscience” (the two original researchers were plain old cognitive behavioralists…go figure).

I guess with enough time being ignored by the masses, even old theories sound new again if they’re proposed under a new name.

Fraust (user link) says:


E-mail is just another method of written communication. Letters existed long before e-mail or even computers.

Verbal communication does include body language and facial expression however, people often misunderstand verbal communication just as well as written. Talking to someone provides no guarantee that they won’t misinterpret what you’re saying based on their own insanity or stupidity, than if you wrote them a clear and concise letter. I have found that college graduates in particular tend to interpret what they hear rather than actually listen to what someone is saying. In my experience, a lot of people hear parts of sentences. Phrases. The same appears to be true in written communication. In the end, you can alter what you say and how you say it, or write something in very clear concise terms, but if the idiot reading it has a loose wireless connection with reality (is crazy) or was dropped on their head as a child (stupid), it doesn’t matter how you say or write something. They just won’t get it. What we can do to help the person we’re communicating with is cut back on the verbosity of written and verbal communication and just get straight to the point in clear and concise terms(Ph.D’s especially have trouble with cutting back on words, since they like to talk and witness a captive audience listening to the sound of their voice or reading some e-mail or document from them that has a title that is far to long with content that is excessively verbose). Getting straight to the point of communication with as few words as possible gives the brain less work in understanding the communication.

A rule of thumb is to calm down before writing a letter or e-mail. Being emotional makes it more likely that you’ll say or write something that you will regret later. Also keep in mind that when writing e-mail at work, someone other than your intended recipient can and in fact might see this e-mail. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t want a third party to read.

bshock (profile) says:

emotional vacuum

It’s gratifying to see that others have observed the same email phenomenon as I have over the years. I’m not entirely crazy.

At one point in the late 1990s, when I hated my job (which required a lot of emailing to interested parties), I carried out some loose experiments based on the idea that email was so devoid of metacommunication and email readers were so desperate for it, they would latch on to any clue I gave them. I created a list of simple emotion names (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, etc.) and then made a point of using just one of these words at least 3 times in every email reply. Whenever I received an answer to one of these experimental emails, I tried to carry out an objective analysis of the writer’s emotional state.

I eventually concluded that my hypothetical projection effect seemed to work best with the stronger emotions such as anger. Fear came in second place, though this one usually looked a lot like paranoia with an angry edge. Sadness was a distant third, perhaps because sadness was misinterpreted as depression and depressed people aren’t terribly active.

For whatever reason, email in the “happy” group almost never received replies. As I neared the time when I finally left that position, I ended up filling all of my emails with words like “happiness” and “joy” and that sort of thing.

Maybe they thought I was a religious nut.

m59 says:

Email Is More Written than Spoken

Email is no more than an excuse for the barely literate to hide their ineffability. The originator of misunderstood email bears a responsibility to communicate more effectively. Likewise, the receiver of email must make an effort to interpret and react upon that information. Everyone is involved in the process.

Until telepathy comes along in a big way, we all need to realize that language is the best way to connect with other folks and get what we want out of life.

For those who lack the necessary skills, shut off the TV, put away the DVD, take your hands off the joystick, and start reading and writing practice. People win and lose jobs and lovers and court cases by their words. (What’s in YOUR vocabulary?)

Fraust says we need to dumb down our communications to accomodate the lowest common denominator. Wrong! That’s not a practical or strategic way to address the issue, but a short term solution that panders to the language-impaired and takes our inadequate educational system off the hook for its failure to ensure literacy.

How else can we restore our esteemed literary heritage except by presenting our highest efforts and ideas through our words?

Let each adapt their language skills in service to society rather than the other way around.

oldphoneguy says:

Good one, m59

“Ineffability”, eh? Wonderful choice for the topic – I had to look it up, but now I’ve expanded my knowledge.

One clear advantage I see with e-mail has not been mentioned – you can always re-read & edit your text before sending. Likely, most people don’t take the time for that, as they think they’re so busy and important – many don’t even bother with spell check, let alone additional thought….

My2cents says:

10 more email rules

Griff must have learned his rules from the same boneheads I deal with. Here’s some more great rules to be all that you can be:

11. Stop cc’ing your backup on the most important projects two weeks before you go on vacation. They’ll get a kick out of trying to figure out WTH is going on while you’re hiking in New Zealand for the next month.

12. Answer questions with irrelevant answers. For example, if the question is “Do your RHEL 5 installs kernel panic with the latest driver?”, reply with “I’m having no problems with Win2K3”. It’s always good for a laugh.

13. Don’t include your phone number, just in case someone actually needs to speak with you.

14. Save time by reading every 3rd or 4th word, then reply based on only what you read.

15. Use lots of long run-on sentences, in one long paragragh, instead of using numbered lists or bullets.

16. If an urgent message regarding a high-priority project hits your inbox at 09:00, don’t reply until 18:30 just before you leave the office. No point in getting all involved in a crisis during your busy day.

17. Take advantage of team meetings to send messages to your SO. But do it from your notebook not your iPhone, because that would just be too tacky.

18. Use witty signatures in messages to your customers. Something like “You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them”. Instills that “warm and fuzzy” feeling on the other end.

19. Never reply with the “include original message” feature enabled. That would be TMI for anyone. Who needs a stinkin’ thread to know what’s going on?

20. Heck, why even bother answering the original message when you can reply in a new one that doesn’t include everyone that was on the original? Be sure to observe rule #1 when doing this.

Nicole says:

reading tone and emotion through emails

I found all the comments extremely insightful. I am writing a reasearch paper for school about non verbal communication in emails and text messages. Has anyone any suggestions for some sites to explore for some relevant resources? I didn’t pick the topic it is an honors project assigned to me. Thanks for any ideas. Nicole

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