The Perils Of Email Communication

Posted on May 16, 2006

The Christian Science Monitor has an interesting article about why email is so easily misunderstood by the recipient. It comes down with how difficult is to convey emotion and sarcasm in email.

In effect, e-mail cannot adequately convey emotion. A recent study by Profs. Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago focused on how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. Their conclusion: Not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but e-mail recipients also overestimate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.

One reason for this, the business-school professors say, is that people are egocentric. They assume others experience stimuli the same way they do. Also, e-mail lacks body language, tone of voice, and other cues - making it difficult to interpret emotion.

University of Chicago Professor Nicholas Epley advises looking at what you read from the recipient's perspective. You should also read the email aloud.
To avoid miscommunication, e-mailers need to look at what they write from the recipient's perspective, Epley says. One strategy: Read it aloud in the opposite way you intend, whether serious or sarcastic. If it makes sense either way, revise. Or, don't rely so heavily on e-mail. Because e-mails can be ambiguous, "criticism, subtle intentions, emotions are better carried over the phone," he says.
We think that it's time for the house style to change at the Monitor. The word "email" no longer requires the use of a hyphen, because it has moved into mainstream parlance. As for effective communication via email, we can only say this: the emails from writers, editors and journalists we receive are almost always perfectly understandable. But we have noticed that those who don't write for a living do seem to have quite a bit of trouble expressing themselves fluently in an email, even if they have a graduate degree in some other discipline.