50% Of Sent Emails Probably Make You Look Like A Dolt


Photo: Dark and Broody via Flickr

We’ve all read an email or instant message that made our eyebrows furrow. Communication breakdowns happen all the time.Online conversations are easy to have thanks to Skype, AIM, Facebook, and email. They’re also frequently misunderstood.

A 2005 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that online messages are misinterpreted 50% of the time.

What’s more, writers of emails think they’re being crystal clear; they believe their tone will be properly interpreted 80% of the time.

For centuries, people have been sending handwritten letters without fail.  But handwritten messages and typed communication are apples and oranges, the researchers explain. “What’s different in this medium is…the ease with which we can fire things back and forth. It makes text-based communication seem more informal and more like face-to-face communication than it really is,” says Nicholas Epley who performed the study.

Kristin Byron, assistant professor of Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management wrote a paper that showed similar findings.  Email generally increases the chances of mis-communication.

So what’s causing the communication breakdown? Egocentrism.  In other words, email writers have trouble letting go of their own mindsets; they don’t consider the receiver’s perspective before they hit “send.”

What’s really crummy about this whole mis-communication thing is that it tends to skew negative.  Jokes are reported less funny online than off, and neutral emails are frequently perceived as bad or offensive.

“When you communicate with a group you only know through electronic channels, it’s like having functional Asperger’s Syndrome — you are very logical and rational, but emotionally brittle,” NYU professor Clay Shirky says.

There is a glimmer of hope: As you become more familiar with your email contacts, the chances of your messages being misconstrued diminish.

The real solution? Leave more voicemails. People have far fewer problems interpreting these.  70-five per cent of the study’s subjects were able to correctly decipher phone messages as opposed to just 50-six per cent when it came to emails.

So, watch what you type or you could end up creating a lot of unspoken issues.

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