Think Your E-mails Are Clear? Maybe Not


Feb. 17, 2006 — -- 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.

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.

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.

"When you're tapping along -- tapping the song -- it's inevitable that the music that goes along with the song accompanies the active tapping in your head," he explained. "Even though you know that the person on the other end of this experience doesn't have access to the music that's in your head, it's very difficult psychologically to get beyond that perspective and appreciate just how truly impoverished the stimulus is for the other person."

It's similar with e-mail, the researchers found.

When speaking face to face, people can use intonation and physical expressions to convey subtle emotions like sarcasm.

But in text-based communications, we often just assume the recipient will simply "get it."

"The bigger problem of course, is that even if you are aware that communicating over e-mail say, is imperfect at best, if you miscommunicate, somebody doesn't get what you said or they misinterpret something, the conclusion that people are likely to draw is that these people they're communicating with are idiots," said Epley. "Not that the e-mail was unclear and ambiguous."

Even worse, the sender may not know he or she has annoyed or upset the recipient.

"It's not just that there are bruised egos along the way," he said. "It's that there are unknown offenses that we're likely to commit."

As further proof we're not as good at text-based communication as we think, the group's work points to the existence of emoticons -- the little smiley faces, frowns, blushes and more that people type in an attempt to convey emotion in e-mails and IMs.

As the paper points out, there are hundreds of emoticons, but even their meaning is often unclear at best.

"If you were to say that you were disappointed with my work, and you put a frowning face, I have no idea how disappointed you are," Epley said. "Is this devastating or is this trivial?"

"Or if you put a single exclamation point versus three, is this scaled properly? Are you enthused three times more when you put three exclamation points instead of one? They're better than nothing, but they're far from perfect."

In some of the studies, the researchers allowed some subjects to use emoticons, while preventing others from using them. They found the emoticon users weren't more effective at getting their points across.

"We don't know quite why that is, but we have a couple of intuitions," explained Kruger.

"Given that people overestimate the obviousness of their sarcasm and humor and so forth, then there's no need to use an emoticon if it's already obvious."

If egocentrism is the core of the problem, does that mean we're all just a bunch of egomaniacs when we sit down at the keyboard? Kruger and Epley say not.

"It's really an innocent case of egocentrism. It is true that there are other examples of people's inflated sense of self, but this really isn't one of those," said Kruger. "This is the more innocent one that stems from the inevitable difficulty that is associated with perspective taking. It's difficult to get beyond your own perspective even when we know that we need to."

Instead, the researchers concluded that although e-mail and instant messages are incredibly useful, they still have clear drawbacks.

"We need to balance, I think, the limitations of e-mail -- which we've found in this work -- with the clear advantages that e-mail affords and I think those are many and significant," he said.

"It provides a cautionary tale in some sense, to the extent that we don't unwittingly offend, we might want to take that extra step -- both in constructing e-mail and also in interpreting it."