Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Email communication failure.

While modern technology and most certainly the internet has in many ways improved communication, there is a down side. Misinterpretation of email messages can lead to serious communication failure and that’s mostly because of our inability to ‘read tone’. But most of us tend to not remember that.
A new study shows that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 % of the time and those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone.
Apparently, we only have a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message.
"People in our study were convinced they've accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance," says Nicholas Epley, from the University of Chicago.
He also explains that
"People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they 'hear' the tone they intend in their head as they write,".
The reliability of the study may be questionable (the details show small sample size) but it seems fair to say that overall the results make very much sense and reflect something most of us have experienced before, doesn’t it?

It is all very simple after all – human communication relies not just on words, but on the tone of voice as well as on body language. So it is probably easier for most of us to have good communication when we see people, less so when we talk to them on the phone, and it becomes really hard to ascertain tone when writing or reading. It is also clear, as the study underlines, that interpretation of a message is also based on current mood, stereotypes and expectations.

From personal experience, I would also say, along with Kevin Drum, that your chances to get it right are definitely worse when you are emotionally stressed.

So what’s the solution? Well, it seems to me that the more complex the tone is – i.e. sarcasm, irony for instance– the more careful one has to be, and it should probably be avoided altogether in a business context. However, I think it can be fun to do when you know more or less whom you’re emailing. Moreover there are ways to communicate your tone better. There’s always the smiley face, :-) the wink of the eye ;-), or the single quotation marks to show irony in the use of a word or an expression. And then you should also be able to rely on the trust that binds relationships.

In the end, what I have learned lately is that it is probably better to wait and not email when you’re too upset, angry and emotionally stressed about something or about someone whom you want to send an email. The irony is that it is precisely when emailing seems to be an easy cop-out.

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