Tuesday, May 30, 2006

There's No "I" in Email...er...No "me" in Email...um...

...well, I guess there is. I recently read the following article in the Christian Science Monitor about email misunderstandings, so of course it was the first thing I thought of this morning as I received a reply from a colleague/former boss to an email I had sent last night.

What did I learn from this reply? That I am not even remotely funny, and certainly less so via email. What I assumed would be a sort of jokey, flip exchange regarding a class we are teaching became an agonizing realization that he had completely missed the jokey, flip part of my message.

E once again writes the book on how to win friends and influence people...

So I was sitting here wondering how to respond when the most revolutionary and insane idea came to me: Lift The G****mn Phone Already!!

How about that, huh? Picking up what an old development colleague called "the ten thousand ton phone" (as in, "that must be why so few nonprofit staff members pick it up to interact with their donors") and just chatting about the class like we'd do if we were in the same location. A stunning idea whose time has come.

As I thought about it this morning, I have a habit of (as the article below outlines) not reading my emails in the way the other person might perceive them. To me it's a throwaway question, to the recipient it's a many-headed hydra of angst about how to respond. To me it's a genuine statement of my positive feelings, to the recipient it's an inappropriately effusive come-on. To me it's a genuine yet restrained statement of my not-so-positive and perhaps hurt feelings, to the recipient it's an ad hominem attack on their person. Sometimes I think email will be easier, it will give the person time to read my words, think them through, and then either respond or not, depending on their preference. But I am thinking lately that email should really be used for little more than cursory communication of a non-emotional nature, be that emotion joy, sadness, mirth or whatever other emotion would cause a woman to actually use the word "mirth" in a sentence. Otherwise we are taking a big risk in assuming that people can see us smile as we type the joke; can hear our inflection indicating that the question is a quickie filler rather than an entree to a larger, deeper conversation about something; or can hear the pain in our voices as we write things they may not want to hear. I've often told myself, "well, we can't connect via phone, which is why I'm writing this via email," which is a big pile of hooey. Because, ridiculous and unbelievable as it may seem, not everything I want to say is worth saying. Except that part with the word "mirth" in it. That was a good one.

It's all about me: Why e-mails are so easily misunderstood
By Daniel Enemark | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

...Morris and Lowenstein are among the scholars studying the benefits and dangers of e-mail and other computer-based interactions. In a world where businesses and friends often depend upon e-mail to communicate, scholars want to know if electronic communications convey ideas clearly.

The answer, the professors conclude, is sometimes "no." Though e-mail is a powerful and convenient medium, researchers have identified three major problems. First and foremost, e-mail lacks cues like facial expression and tone of voice. That makes it difficult for recipients to decode meaning well. Second, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness. Finally, the inability to develop personal rapport over e-mail makes relationships fragile in the face of conflict.

In effect, e-mail cannot adequately convey emotion. A recent study by Profs. Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago focused on how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. Their conclusion: Not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but e-mail recipients also overestimate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.

One reason for this, the business-school professors say, is that people are egocentric. They assume others experience stimuli the same way they do. Also, e-mail lacks body language, tone of voice, and other cues - making it difficult to interpret emotion. "A typical e-mail has this feature of seeming like face-to-face communication," Professor Epley says. "It's informal and it's rapid, so you assume you're getting the same paralinguistic cues you get from spoken communication."

To avoid miscommunication, e-mailers need to look at what they write from the recipient's perspective, Epley says. One strategy: Read it aloud in the opposite way you intend, whether serious or sarcastic. If it makes sense either way, revise. Or, don't rely so heavily on e-mail. Because e-mails can be ambiguous, "criticism, subtle intentions, emotions are better carried over the phone," he says.


Joe Tornatore said...

my humor doesn't translate well into emails and barely more so on my blog. I just want to italicize every pun so people get it and that defeats the purpose.

S said...

I hate to admit this but I use emoticons all the time...at least the winker. I feel like if I use an emoticon or type out "just kidding"...I'm dumbing things down a bit but how else to avoid the unintended?