Email: subtleties lost in translation

Email is valued as a communication tool because of its speed. In that sense, it is more like face-to-face contact than written communication. And yet the absence of face-to-face contact means that many of the nuances in email are lost on the recipient.

by Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2005, Vol 89
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Obvious as this might seem, a series of studies indicates that this limitation is under-appreciated and that people tend to think that they can communicate via email better than they actually can.

Further research suggests that this overconfidence can be attributed to egocentrism, the inherent difficulty of ignoring your own perspective when trying to evaluate the perspective of somebody else. In other words, email communicators are apt to think that because they know a statement is meant to be funny or sarcastic, say, it will be taken that way by the recipient.

Indeed, the studies suggest that emailers are also highly confident that they can interpret the nuances in emails they receive. This is despite the fact that it is widely acknowledged that people convey meaning not just with what they say but with how they say it.

The difficulties of conveying the right tone are indicated by further findings that the level of understanding is not better if the sender and the recipient of the email know each other.

With new forms of media – chat rooms, instant messaging and the like – springing up all the time, the opportunities for misunderstandings and offence are rife. Moreover, in a world where there are many differences of perspective, there are real threats to the quality of communication if senders of email are overconfident of the clarity of their message.

Overestimating the obviousness of one's intentions can lead to insufficient allowances for ambiguities in communication.

Source: Egocentrism over e-mail: can we communicate as well as we think?
Justin Kruger, Stern School of Business, New York University, Nicholas Epley, University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, Jason Parker and Zhi-Wen Ng, both University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2005, Vol 89 No 6

Review by Roger Trapp

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