May 21, 2006
Misunderstandings Common In Email

Do not expect your written communications to be understood.

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.

"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."

I see the same thing all the time in post comment discussions here and all over the blogosphere and in various discussion forum venues and the Usenet. People misinterpret my posts. They misinterpret each other. They get morally indignant and insulting. Things descend from there. I try to read my writings for alternative explanations to reduce the extent of the problem but still expect to be misunderstood some of the time.

Peope think they are just as clear in email as they are on the phone. How can humans be that foolish? (er, never mind, we are that foolish all the time)

Frequency that..EmailPhone
Communicator believes he is clearly communicating78%78%
Receiver believes he is correctly interpreting89%91%
Receiver correctly interprets message56%73%

So then the internet is automating the process of producing misunderstandings! We internet dwellers have more communications misunderstandings than those who still restrict their lives to the real world.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 May 21 12:27 PM  Comm Tech Society

Jake said at May 21, 2006 8:18 PM:

At the company I work for, it was shown that giving bad news to an employee by email always comes across much harsher than the sender intended. So you are not allowed to send bad news emails. Bad news has to be communicated in person or by phone.

FSM said at May 23, 2006 4:51 PM:

So, how is this rate of "correct interpretations" measured? Do they consider each statement, and see if it was misinterpreted, or do they consider one misinterpreted statement in an entire e-mail or phone conversation as a miss for that entire conversation? Or did they just ask someone to subjectively rate the tone that they intended to convey for the entire message on a scale?

Seems like there could be a lot of wiggle room there. I find it kind of hard to believe that 56% of everything you write is probably being misinterpreted.

crush41 said at May 23, 2006 10:05 PM:

No, tt's 44% of what's written that's said to be misinterpreted. Misinterpreting an interpretation of our ability to interpret correctly. What a hopeless mess!

Dave said at May 24, 2006 7:35 AM:

A huge amount of information is encoded in tone, emphasis and inflection and other musical attributes in oral converse. None of this exists in email. Further, it is even more easy to fall into what I call the "death by pronoun" phenom...where too few nouns are used and prepositional ambiguity wreaks havoc.

It's their fault when this happens. They always screw up like this.

Syd said at June 22, 2009 7:51 PM:

63% of all statistics are made up!

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