A survey on the difficulty to communicate via e-mail

egocentrism over e-mailCommunication being at the root of cooperation, it should be effective. Given the fact that communication is about emotions as much as information, the capacity of conveying emotions the right way should be a prerequisite in a manager’s toolbox. Yet, we are not always very good at circulating emotions over e-mail. A scientific study explains us why.

When asked if we are able to communicate emotions efficiently over e-mail, most of us would answer “yes”. The truth is it’s not the case.

In a nutshell, the experiments carried out by Justin Kruger (Stern School of Business), Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago), Jason Parker and Zhi-Wen Ng (University of Illinois) highlight this :


We are too confident in our capacity to communicate effectively our emotions by e-mail. Because we are filled with emotions at the moment we write, we unconsciously believe that the recipient of our message will see the world the way we do and will decode our emotions. Actually, the recipient only receives words (with no intonation, no gestures and no facial expressions) and he/she is also in a given emotional state that may be completely different. As the recipient tends to believe too that the sender’s vision of the world is the same as his/hers, he too is too confident in his capacity to interpret the emotions of the sender. This natural dual egocentrism leads to numerous misunderstandings.

For instance, one will read sarcasm in an e-mail where the sender meant none. Or one will perceive complicity while the content of the message was meant to be neutral.

This problem of miscommunication comes from the fact that we think that the others are like us and feel like we do. The merit of the survey is to prove it with unquestionable figures via a series of experiments.

There is such a distortion every time we relate to somebody, be it face to face, over the telephone or by e-mail. But it is particularly strong in the case of e-mail for several reasons:

#1: e-mail has the power of writing and the instantaneity of orality.

E-mail is an electronic missive that can have the force of a missile.

#2: e-mail does not make it possible to rely on other evidence of emotions (gestures, intonations, postures); emoticons are a way to make for it, quite weak though.

#3: e-mail plays an increasingly important role in networked companies.

Indeed, networked companies make an intensive use of freelance workers and telecommuters, hence rely a lot on e-mail for collaborative purposes.

It is thus more than ever appropriate to watch carefully the words we use in e-mails. It is often a good idea to defer the sending of an important or controversial e-mail, to take the time to read it twice and make sure it is not ambiguous. Better still, setting up a meeting or placing a phone call can be more effective.

In short, e-mail is a concentrate of the many difficulties human beings have to communicate one with another. As regards cooperation, other technologies such as VoIP and videoconferencing associated to text (for instance in wikis) are far better tools.

Read here the complete survey

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