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Why E-Mails Are Misunderstood:

The Christian Science Monitor explores why e-mails are often the source of miscommunication.

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.

On the whole, the article is a useful summary of what you probably know already.

UPDATE: Kaimipono Wagner thinks these insights might apply to blogging as well.

gst (mail):

First and foremost, e-mail lacks cues like facial expression and tone of voice. That makes it difficult for recipients to decode meaning well.


I don't understand this objection--doesn't it apply to all written communications? In written communication, we use words to convey meaning. If you can't get your meaning across, including nuanced meaning or even sarcasm, then you're choosing the wrong words or not arranging them well.
5.16.2006 4:01pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Looks like the youngsters need a little training on letter writing. A judicious application of the ruler to their fat little hands will reduce the tendancy to hit Send a bit too quickly and improve their composition.
5.16.2006 4:08pm
Nik Gregory (mail) (www):
I find this rather absurd, we've been using the written word since ancient egypt and I've never heard of a letter starting a war... well except declerations of war, but they're rather hard to misinterpret as the whole "we're coming to kill you" is never funny as a joke.


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.


This is even more absurd, I work exclusively through the internet and through e-mail. Never has there been pressure on me to reply or write quickly, it's even been shown in research unessential e-mails can sit for several days before a reply is sent. Furthermore I maintain many relationships through e-mail without there ever being crossed wires or relationships being fragile.

I think the reviewers picked an appaulingly bad group to research, possibly the illiterate, brain dead, or quite possibly laboratory monkeys. I don't really know but it sounds more like the crackpot research of a technophobe.
5.16.2006 4:16pm
rbj:
If I put my glasses down, I have to pick them up again if I'm talking to someone. Email-as-a-replacement-for-face-to-face conversations is hindered by this lack of facial clues. IMO, people don't put the same thought into email as they do with essays or even the old fashioned letter written on stationery. Not everyone, obviously, but probably for a majority, especially those who don't write for a living.
5.16.2006 5:00pm
Jerry Mimsy (www):
Hitting send too quickly: one of the features I enjoy on most e-mail programs (I know Eudora has it and am pretty sure Mac OS X mail does not) is the ability to set Send not to immediately send. If I set e-mail to go out every hour, Send becomes Queue and I generally have at least a few minutes to rethink what I said or clarify if better wording comes to mind.

In Eudora, I can even option-click the Queue button (or the Send button if I have messages set to go out immediately) and set the time that the message will go out. I've often set messages to go out a day or two later if I really want time to think about it (or if I want to slow the conversation down).

Now, if only I could do that with blog comments... :*)
5.16.2006 5:23pm
Houston Lawyer:
The problem is with those sending the emails. Email allows millions of people who would never write a letter to show off their writing skills. Their writing skills are horrible. It is not the reader's fault, he's reading what was actually written.

I've been harrassed by the younger crowd about the formalities I follow in my emails. The formalities I follow are those I was taught from the first grade on. I won't throw them aside because they are essential to clear writing.
5.16.2006 5:36pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Second, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.

I disagree with this. Being face-to-face or on the phone with someone creates a much greater sense of urgency. If anything, emails give people the sense they can blow off other people's communications.

Email gives you the chance to draft and re-draft a response until it meets your satisfaction. Not that we always take advantage.
5.17.2006 3:04am
abb3w:
Not all of the formalities of a dead-tree letter are required; for instance, the "My Dear Charles Emerson Winchester III:" can usually be ommitted, and dating is automatic. Also, there are times when the tone of a memo is more appropriate for email than the tone of a full letter.

I'd agree that the potential for rapid communication often leads to a habit of quick-and-sloppy writing. However, I'd say that the greater problem is from the underlying limitations of any written medium, and the sloppy writing skills that most under forty have. Most high-school and college graduates in the last few decades have never really mastered the art of effectively conveying a coherent idea via the written word. If you can communicate effectively via snailmail, email is no challenge; if you can't handle snailmail, email isn't going to help.

There's also the hazards from ambiguities native in the English language, but those are really just an additional cherry on top.
5.17.2006 1:56pm
alice:
I think it depends on how you view e-mail, and blog commenting.

If you think of e-mail as a letter, then the rules are formal and laid out clearly. I tell my students to e-mail me, but to keep it formal. None of those goofy abbreviations, couch your demands with please and thank you, date the missive, sign it. You wouldn't believe the dreck they send if you don't set up the rules at the beginning of the term.

If you think of e-mail as chatting at the water cooler, your message can easily be misinterpreted. The turn around time for responses is delayed, and there are no visual clues to help you identify, for ex, a statement of dry wit.

My family finally quit exchanging e-mails on politics because the arguments were far more heated than they ever are in person.
5.17.2006 4:15pm
Meryl Yourish (www):
I've been online since 1986, and have long since lost count of the number of times I had to explain that a post, email, or comment of mine was not personally attacking the person who read it, including--I kid you not--people who were never mentioned in the post or comment, but who took it personally.

It is incredibly difficult to convey certain emotions in emails, and it is seemingly very easy to misconstrue the contents of an email into a personal affront. This isn't just about the quality of writing--it's about the reader's readiness to perceive insult where none is intended.

I can't recall ever angering someone over a written letter, though admittedly, my correspondence with my cousin in my teens and twenties wasn't exactly the kind of thing you put in memoirs. But I can tell you exactly the last email that got me into a boatload of trouble, and all I thought I was doing was making an offhand comment about a friend's satirical comment on someone's blog. To say she was furious is an understatement.

Now magnify that by the fact that I agree with all of the previous commenters who take their time to compose their emails, believe in the rules of letter-writing, and try very carefully to get their opinions across correctly.

It's the medium. It's an inherent flaw. As they say in programming, it's not a bug, it's a feature.
5.17.2006 5:01pm