For every e-mail message you send, there is a little less than 50-percent chance the intended tone of the e-mail will be misinterpreted, according to research published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study involved 30 pairs of undergraduates who were asked to send 20 statements to their partner. One used a tape recording and a sarcastic or serious tone, the other sent an email. Members of each group were about 80% confident their message would be understood. The numbers showed otherwise. Speakers rated a success rate of 75%, but E-mail users scored only 56%. Recipients of either type of message thought they would understand 90% of the communications.
At the base of all this misunderstanding, according to the study, is egocentrism—the inability of people to step outside themselves according to the researchers who looked into this phenomenon further. Their tests revealed the E-mailers thought recipients had access to the same information they did—i.e. that they “heard” things the same way.
If you want to make sure your message is understood, use the phone, experts say. "E-mail is fine if you just want to communicate content, but not any emotional material," Epley explains.
Read more about the study of misinterpreted email.
- “The Secret Cause of Flame Wars,” Wired
- "Emails and Egos," American Psychological Association, Monitor on Psychology
- “When what you type isn’t what they read: the perseverance of stereotypes and expectancies over e-mail,' Nicholas Epley and Justin Kruger