TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Why Emails are so Easily Misunderstood

Why Emails are so Easily Misunderstood

Christian Science Monitor (
Wed, 17 May 2006 19:34:39 -0500

from the May 15, 2006 edition -

By Daniel Enemark | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Michael Morris and Jeff Lowenstein wouldn't have recognized each other
if they'd met on the street, but that didn't stop them from getting
into a shouting match. The professors had been working together on a
research study when a technical glitch inconvenienced
Mr. Lowenstein. He complained in an e-mail, raising Mr. Morris's
ire. Tempers flared.

"It became very embarrassing later," says Morris, when it turned out
there had been a miscommunication, "but we realized that we couldn't
blame each other for yelling about it because that's what we were

Morris and Lowenstein are among the scholars studying the benefits and
dangers of e-mail and other computer-based interactions. In a world
where businesses and friends often depend upon e-mail to communicate,
scholars want to know if electronic communications convey ideas

The answer, the professors conclude, is sometimes "no." Though e-mail
is a powerful and convenient medium, researchers have identified three
major problems. First and foremost, e-mail lacks cues like facial
expression and tone of voice. That makes it difficult for recipients
to decode meaning well. Second, the prospect of instantaneous
communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and
write quickly, which can lead to carelessness. Finally, the inability
to develop personal rapport over e-mail makes relationships fragile in
the face of conflict.

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

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.

"A typical e-mail has this feature of seeming like face-to-face
communication," Professor Epley says. "It's informal and it's rapid,
so you assume you're getting the same paralinguistic cues you get from
spoken communication."

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.

E-mail's ambiguity has special implications for minorities and women,
because it tends to feed the preconceptions of a recipient. "You sign
your e-mail with a name that people can use to make inferences about
your ethnicity," says Epley. A misspelling in a black colleague's
e-mail may be seen as ignorance, whereas a similar error by a white
colleague might be excused as a typo.

If you're vulnerable to this kind of unintentional prejudice, pick up
the phone: People are much less likely to prejudge after communicating
by phone than they are after receiving an e-mail. Kruger and Epley
demonstrated this when they asked 40 women at Cornell to administer a
brief interview, 20 by phone and 20 by e-mail. They then asked a third
group of 20, the "targets," to answer the phone interviewers'
questions. They sent a transcription of the targets' answers to the
e-mail interviewers.

The professors then handed each interviewer what they said was a photo
of her subject. In reality, each got a picture of either an Asian or
an African-American woman (in reality, all were white).

E-mail interviewers who thought the sender was Asian considered her
social skills to be poor, while those who believed the sender was
black considered her social skills to be excellent. In stark contrast,
the difference in perceived sociability almost completely disappeared
when interviewer and target had talked on the phone.

E-mail tends to be short and to the point. This may arise from the
time pressures we feel when writing them: We know e-mail arrives as
soon as we send it, so we feel we should write it quickly, too. On the
other hand, letters depend on postal timetables. A letter writer feels
he has a bigger window of time to think and write.

Psychologists Massimo Bertacco and Antonella Deponte call this
characteristic "speed facilitation," and they believe it influences
our episodic memory -- our ability to recall events. They found that
e-mailers wrote shorter messages and were less likely to "ground their
communications" in memories of shared experience than letters writers

The brevity of e-mail and the absence of audiovisual cues can endanger
business and personal relationships unless e-mail is supplemented with
the rapport that comes from more personal communication.

"Rapport creates a buffer of positive regard," says Professor Morris,
"and when it's not there negotiation becomes brittle, vulnerable to
falling apart."

Morris, who studies negotiation at Columbia, led a study that found
that negotiators exchange more than three times the information in
face-to-face interactions as they do via e-mail. Though Morris and his
colleagues concluded that e-mail lets negotiators make "more complex,
multiple-issue offers," they ultimately built less rapport, thereby
increasing tensions and lowering the average economic value of the

Rapport "is an interpersonal resonance of emotional expression,"
Morris says, "involving synchronous gesture, laughing, and smiling
together. Once this rapport exists, it's a buffer against a moment in
the negotiation when there's some friction." This buffer is hard to
develop without speaking over the phone or in person. Those who
negotiated by e-mail in Morris's study trusted each other less and
weren't as interested in working together again.

But the pitfalls of e-mail interaction were easily overcome by a
single phone call. Morris ran a second round of negotiations, all
conducted via e-mail, but made half of the corresponding pairs chat on
the phone before negotiating -- "just for five or 10 minutes," Morris
explains, "and the key thing is we told them, 'Don't get into the
issues. It's just an icebreaker.' " The result was dramatically
improved agreements.

So if you want to buy something on Craig's List, Morris says, "make a
brief phone call, even if it's not practical to do the whole
negotiation by phone. You can establish a favorable bias with someone
and then proceed in a less rich medium, but it's very hard to just get
right into the negotiation on a medium that isn't rich." | Copyright 2006 The Christian Science Monitor.

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