Did You Know...

That email recipients correctly interpret the intended tone of an email message only 50% of the time?

While email can be an efficient means of communication, it is not always an effective one. Compared to face-to-face and telephone conversations, email is an impoverished communication medium. Without cues provided by a speaker's gestures, tone of voice, and inflection, recipients must rely solely on the text content of an email message to interpret its tone. Unfortunately, the verbal information provided can be easily misunderstood.

In a recent study, researchers Justin Kruger and Nicholas Epley asked participants to send either serious or sarcastic email to others. While 80% of email senders thought their tone could be readily identified, recipients correctly identified the tone only half the time. Even worse, the recipients believed they could accurately interpret the sender's tone 90% of the time. Overconfidence in our own ability to communicate and interpret emotional tone via email can lead us to take serious offense when none is intended. Even worse, because email is rapid and we cannot see the immediate reaction of the recipient, misinterpretations can lead to hasty, tactless responses.

In a survey of 1,000 employees conducted by Vault.com, 50% of respondents said they believe their emails are misperceived as angry, abrupt, or overly casual by recipients. Email may backfire for a number of reasons. First, email lacks cues like facial expression and tone of voice that help listeners decode the meaning of verbal information. Second, the expectation of instantaneous communication may pressure emailers to react and respond quickly. How often do we dash off a reply before truly thinking through what we want to say and how we ought to say it? To add to the difficulty, email is frequently exchanged between individuals with little (if any) personal rapport. Without the context provided by a personal relationship, the recipient must decode intended meaning in a vacuum. Stereotypes, preconceptions, and expectations may bias the recipient's interpretation. 

While some studies indicate that participants make more complex offers when conducting negotiations via email, the ultimate outcomes suffer from the lack of rapport established. Those who negotiate by email report less trust in one another and less interest in working together in the future. These social consequences must be considered when deciding what communication medium is best for a specific task or topic.

To improve your email communications, practice good etiquette. Clearly identify the subject and purpose of the email, sending it only to appropriate recipients. Be direct and descriptive, but don't overwhelm your reader with unnecessary details. If you are particularly concerned that your message will be misinterpreted, try reading your message with the unintended tone in mind. How does it sound?

Even good etiquette can't ensure success. Some topics are simply better discussed face-to-face or via telephone. If your message is primarily emotional rather than factual, or your objective is more social (build relationships, establish trust) than task focused, ditch email in favor of a richer (if less efficient) communication strategy. You'll be glad you did.
 
 
Sources:

Enemark, Daniel. "It's All About Me: Why Emails are So Easily Misunderstood." March 15, 2006. The Christian Science Monitor. Available at http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0515/p13s01-stct.html.

Kruger, Justin; Nicholas Epley, Jason Parker, and Zhi-Wen Ng. "Egocentrism Over Email: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think?" December, 2005. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(6), 925-936.

Leahy, Stephen. "The Secret Cause of Flame Wars." February 13, 2006. Wired News. Available at http://www.wired.com/news/technology/0,70179-0.html?tw=rss.index.

Rainey, Vicki P. "The Potential for Miscommunication Using Email as a Source of Communication." December, 2000. Journal of Integrated Design and Process Science, 4(4), 21-43. 

Shepherd, Clive. "You've Got Mail." Available at http://www.fastrak-consulting.co.uk/tactix/Features/email/email.htm.

Tay, Wenkai. "Essential Email Etiquette: Avoid Common Pitfalls When Composing Your Messages." 2003. Techsoup Compumentor. Available at http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/internet/page4815.cfm.

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