Think Your E-mails Are Clear? Maybe Not

If you think you're an expert at communicating via e-mail and instant message, you may want to reconsider.

In reality most people are often sending and receiving mixed signals in their electronic communications, according to new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"We've known for a long time that when we design our speech, we do so egocentrically," said Justin Kruger, one of the paper's authors and an associate professor at NYU. "We imagine how our utterances will sound from the vantage point, essentially, of ourselves.

"We assume that if we understand what we're saying, the person on the other end of our communication will as well."

But studies show that's not always the case.

Though text-based communication has been around for millenia, e-mail and instant message are still evolving, so be warned that there may be a few bruised egos and unnecessary tiffs to deal with along the way.

Humor Is in the Voice of the Beholder

David Noce said he was "totally polite" when he sent out an e-mail to a co-worker to probe her abilities and ask her to complete a task.

"I started off in a friendly tone, 'Hey, regarding such and such, we need such and such, if you have time today, otherwise please let me know, etc,'" he recalled in an e-mail. "I was totally polite in my e-mail, and I even gave it a friendly tone with 'hey', as in the colloquial expression for 'hello.'"

To Noce -- an intern in the law department of a multinational company at the time -- the message was totally innocuous, so what happened next came as a complete surprise.

"Next thing I know I got a phone message from the lawyer I was apprenticed to who told me the paralegal had forwarded him the message, and he thought it was inappropriate and rude and that it wouldn't be tolerated," he said.

Nicholas Epley, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who co-authored the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper along with Kruger, Jason Parker and Zhi Wen Ng, said this is a perfect example of how we misinterpret these kinds of messages.

"This is exactly the kind of thing that we're talking about," said Epley. "That's exactly where one's intention to do something -- in this case to be polite -- was taken as a sign of attack and being rude."

Noce said he was able to clear up the misunderstanding, but thinks the incident tarnished his reputation, particularly with his boss.

Communication Breakdown

In their research, Epley and Kruger found the overconfidence we suffer from when communicating electronically, stems from our innate inability to see past our own thought process.

As an analogy, Kruger described another experiment where subjects are given a list of well-known songs, asked to pick one, and then asked to tap out the rhythm of the tune to another to see if it can be identified.

The results showed that -- just as with e-mail -- people greatly overestimate their ability to effectively communicate and Kruger said when you think about it, it's easy to understand why.

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