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The Miscommunication Medium


Last updated 8/5/2010

Do you ever feel misunderstood by your co-workers? Even if you’re unaware of it, there’s a good chance that you sometimes are, especially if you regularly use e-mail.

Today’s employees spend an average of 8.8 hours per week on e-mail, up from just four hours as recently as 2000, according to a survey by training organization IBT-USA Inc. (“E-mail,” 2005). The irony is that new studies indicate that e-mail—and possibly other text-based media such as instant messaging—actually seems to increase the chances of miscommunication compared to voice-based or face-to-face communication.

The crux of the problem seems to be that e-mail is a relatively thin medium. There are no body gestures, facial features, intonations or vocalizations to add context and meaning. “Emoticons”—expressive icons that can be inserted into e-mail, instant messages and text messages—may assist in personal communications but are impractical in a professional business environment. As a result, recipients of e-mail can and frequently do misinterpret the tone and emotional content of those messages despite the fact that the senders are quite confident that they’ll be understood, according to researchers Justin Kruger, Nicholas Epley, Jason Parker and Zhi-Wen Ng.

In one study, 30 pairs of university students were given a list of statements to communicate, half of which were sarcastic and half of which were serious. Some students communicated their messages via e-mail and others by recorded voice messages. Those who received voice messages accurately gleaned the sarcasm (or lack thereof) 73% of the time, but those who received the statements via e-mail did so only 56% of the time, an accuracy rate that the researchers said was no better than sheer chance. Yet, the e-mailers had anticipated an accuracy rate of about 78%. That is, they badly overestimated their ability to communicate the tenor of their statements via e-mail.

What’s more, the recipients of the e-mails were also decidedly overconfident. They guessed that they’d correctly interpreted the tone of the e-mail about 90% of the time. “In sum,” write the researchers, “participants in this experiment were overconfident in their ability to both convey and detect sarcasm over the e-mail, but they were considerably less overconfident over voice.” Other studies showed that the same kind of problems emerged when it comes to communicating emotions such as sadness and anger via e-mail.

So, why do study participants tend to be so overconfident in their ability to both express and perceive the emotional tenor of e-mail? The researchers argue that the reason is, at least to some degree, egocentrism. They define this as “the inherent difficulty of moving beyond one’s subjective experience of a stimulus and imagining how the stimulus might be evaluated by someone who does not share one’s privileged perspective.” In other words, when a communication medium fails to provide a lot of the contextual clues carried in the human voice, people just “fill in the blanks” by using their own perspective, even if they’re not aware they’re doing it.

Misunderstanding might not only impede communication but lead to hard feelings, “flame wars” (in which people get into a heated exchange of angry electronic messages), and sometimes even lawsuits (Leahy, 2006). What’s more, in another research paper, Epley and Kruger (2005) suggest that people can also fall back on stereotypes or predetermined expectancies when they use e-mail, especially if the information is ambiguous. “When individuals interact over e-mail with someone about whom they already have a stereotype, they are more, not less, likely to come away from the communication with those stereotypes still intact,” they write.

Even given its shortcomings, however, e-mail is likely to remain a major force in business communication for some time to come. Therefore, employees need to be educated about it. One lesson: employees should avoid trying to communicate feelings via e-mail. “E-mail is fine if you want to communicate content, but not any emotional material,” notes Prof. Epley (Winerman, 2006).
Another lesson is that it is often better to just pick up the phone. Voice communication is richer, carrying many more nuances. Yet, sometimes people seem to use e-mail specifically to avoid having a difficult conversation about a potentially emotion-laden subject. These studies suggest e-mail is a poor substitute for a heart-to-heart talk.

Another strategy is to train workers to read their e-mail messages out loud in various tones of voice before sending them. In other words, if a person is sending a sarcastic message, he or she should try reading it in a serious and somber tone of voice in order to see if it could be misconstrued. The research indicates that this goes far in helping people step outside their own perspectives, virtually eliminating communication overconfidence.

As awareness of the shortcomings of e-mail becomes better known, other technologies might enrich or complement the medium. For example, voice attachments to e-mail might become more popular in coming years. Or perhaps people will simply get better at understanding the limitations and etiquette of e-mail. Whatever happens, this relatively young communication technology will continue to evolve.

Documents used in the preparation of this article include the following:
“E-mail Takes Up More Work Time than Ever: Study.” TechBuilder [EE Times], November 9, 2005.

Epley, Nicholas and Justin Kruger. “When What You Type Isn’t What They Read: The Perseverance of Stereotype and Expectancies over E-Mail.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 41, 2005, pp. 414-422.

Kruger, Justin, Nicholas Epley, Jason Parker, and Zhi-Wen Ng. “Egocentrism over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 89, No. 6, 2005, pp. 925-935.

Leahy, Stephen. “The Secret Causes of Flame Wars.” WiredNews, February 13, 2006.

Winerman, Lea. “E-Mails and Egos.” Monitor on Psychology, APAOnline, February 2006.