Catch up on stories from the past week (and beyond) at the Slashdot story archive


Forgot your password?

Why Emails Are Misunderstood 337

werdna writes "The Christian Science Monitor has a piece on why it's so easy to misinterpret emails. From the article: '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.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Why Emails Are Misunderstood

Comments Filter:
  • by Bananatree3 ( 872975 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @12:36PM (#15335373)
    Email is simply a sped-up version of the old fashion hand-written letter. Yes, you coul tell some of the emotions fo the person by the handwriting, but really words on a page are not new, and the issues with it are stil the same. The only new dimension of it is the speed and ease with which it is passed from one person to the next.
  • Rapport (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Cytlid ( 95255 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @12:38PM (#15335385)
    The article is really good. (Whoa, I read it!). It's difficult to communicate over written medium. But given time, you can become better at it. I actually wrote a customer this morning and used the terms "woops I goofed!". He have built prior rapport, over the phone.

      Email should be one communication tool in your toolbelt. Not the only one. Re-read your email before you send it. See if you can understand it, reading it from an objective point of view. I'm sure editors and authors do this all the time.

      I typically put a bunch of garbage in an email, re-read it, and throw 90% of the garbage out, and am left with two short sentences that get my point across. When I ramble on and on and on, people get bored. (like this post).
  • Um... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by GundamFan ( 848341 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @12:39PM (#15335398)

    Email is just like IM chat when I am emailing or chating with a friend or coworker I know personaly I often think to myself "this doesn't sound like so and so". When it is someone I don't know personaly that wierdness is not there... because I have no baseline to compare to.

    One thing I do find helps is adding headers and footers to the emails even if it is a quick "good morning So and so" or a "Thanks," before my auto signature(I am not in sales but the same principals used there can apply to many proffesonal settings). The only time I really don't look for things like that is when I know that the person is on a blackberry, and then being overly breif can be forgiven.
  • by RFC959 ( 121594 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @12:42PM (#15335424) Journal
    Sometimes the lack of social cues is a good thing. There have been times when I've been irritated at someone and sent them email and realized upon getting their response that they didn't get my irritation - it didn't come across in email, and this was actually a positive thing. Obviously that's a limited case, but it does happen too.
  • What makes understanding (and meaning) problematic in e-mail is also well known in AI research. Language, while syntactically specific, grants latitude and license in rule usage and interpretation/extraction of meaning.

    A favorite example of the nuance of true interpretation:

    A long-time foreman of a Nuclear Power Plant was at his retirement party. When asked if he had any parting words of wisdom regarding nuclear power, the foreman winked and said, "Remember, you can never add too much coolant to the core reaction chamber." The story ends with the foreman looking up from his chair on the beach across the bay to see his old plant going up in a mushroom cloud.
  • The graphic on the side says that perhaps just over 1/2 of emails are understood + interpreted correctly, compared with 3/4 of phone calls. So about 1 in 4 communications by phone are misunderstood? It's no wonder we are all so stressed out, if 25% of the time you're on the phone with someone, they don't get what you're talking about!
  • by Bogtha ( 906264 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @12:52PM (#15335513)

    You're right in that substitutes for tone of voice and facial expressions are creeping into the language in the form of emoticons etc, but I wonder how long it will be before emoticons are considered to be a proper part of natural languages in the same way that normal punctuation is?

    The constructed language Lojban [] takes this a step further, with attitudinal indicators that are the rough analogue of emoticons. For instance, .u'i in a sentence indicates that you are amused. However attitudinal indicators are actually a part of the language proper, and are even spoken out loud.

  • Fighting via email (Score:3, Interesting)

    by From A Far Away Land ( 930780 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @12:57PM (#15335544) Homepage Journal
    I had a girlfriend once [no really], that would want to fight over email sometimes. We'd be talking using MSN Messenger, then suddenly if I said something that pissed her off, she'd sign out and start emailing me instead. It was the most annoying thing in the world, especially since Hotmail was broken and it'd take hours sometimes for one of my replies to find its way back to her inbox.

    It was also impossible to end the fight over email, as anything I said always lead to more problems, until I could talk her into getting back on MSN Messenger to talk with me either by messages, or through a voice-call.

    I think email is easy to hide behind and perfect for chewing someone out, but doesn't have a warm fuzzy side to it at all.
  • by SilentChris ( 452960 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @12:59PM (#15335566) Homepage
    This is a situation where, strangely enough, emoticons really help. For example, I have a fairly good, sarcastic sense of humor -- very difficult to read in emails. Let's say the "money" example had to do with a few bucks stolen from petty cash.

    I didn't steal the money.


    I didn't steal the money. :P

    The second conveys a kind of shrugged shoulders, palms upward vibe. It not only says that I didn't steal the money, but also conveys my view that stealing a few bucks is a relatively minor problem and we should move on. Without the emoticon there, that would've been a very difficult sentiment to convey succinctly (I guess I could go into a paragraph explaining my viewpoint, like I did here, but that would be rather onerous).

    Unfortunately, emoticons aren't considered "professional", and that leads to a lot of misguided cues. I kind of wish they were more accepted in a business setting.
  • Poor Vocabulary? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by miyako ( 632510 ) < minus language> on Monday May 15, 2006 @01:09PM (#15335632) Homepage Journal
    I have often wondered if much of the difficulty which arises in written communcation (email, IM, etc.) is due to a general degredation in the vocabulary of the populous. I beleive that my own vocabulary is just slightly above what may have been the average for people born a generation or two before me, but I think that it is vastly larger than that of many of my 20-something peers. Although there may be many causes of this, such as a general decline in literacy, a lack of focus on grammar in schools, MTV, a general trend toward a more streamlined form of english , a conspiracy run by the dental floss industry, Mercury in retrograde-whatever. The result is that by having a smaller vocabulary, the effective resolution of the language is degredated. The more subtle details of language are lost like converting a true color PNG to an 8 bit gif.
    Compare the letters written by- for example- soldiers during the civil war with letters that are written today. It should be a safe assumption that the regular infantry whos letters are oft cited from that era would be average for the time period. In both cases, we are dealing with a form of written communication. While it is perhaps true that letters written before the advent of email were subject to more revisions and were generally more well thought out, the fact is that there is a much larger breadth of vocabulary used in them. I think that if people today were willing and able to use a larger vocabulary they would be able to correspond more effectively and avoid misunderstandings.
  • Simply Not True! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Modern Demagogue ( 975016 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @01:10PM (#15335644)
    During a Nonverbal communication class while an undergrad I did significant research into both the literature and previously performed experiments on this subjecte and found an alltogether different result. I posted my paper at:t: /131-Remediation-Of-Nonverbals-In-Computer-Mediate d.html []

    The introductory paragraph: Non-verbal communication is undeniably a core part of human interaction. The slightest nod of the head, blink of an eyelid, or ill-timed cough can, when analyzed in context, convey the truth of meaning in a conversation. However, today's most utilized communication tool seems to simply deny access to all traditional non-verbal devices. The Internet, not inherently as a medium, but in its current manifestation, with its current crop of computer-mediated communication (CMC) utilities forces use of the written word as the primary medium of rapid communication. Such absence of vocal cues, modifiers, and adaptors utterly eliminates the 63% (or more) of information conveyed in a normal, Face-to-Face (FtF) situation. Such an absence would seem to preclude the Internet and CMC as a forum for social communication and emotional interaction. However, this is a false assumption. A completely independent set of replacement nonverbal behaviors have developed in order to augment the perceived sterility of text-only communication. Furthermore, research demonstrates that not only may social and emotional relationships develop through CMC, but now tend to be the primary utilizations of such technologies. These results arise from a multitude of studies focusing on the intrinsic nature of human communication and the specific manner in which users redefine NVC for the context of this constantly evolving low media richness environment.

    Simply, humans have adapted admirably to the demands of this new method of communication
  • by zaren ( 204877 ) <> on Monday May 15, 2006 @01:11PM (#15335653) Homepage Journal
    The problem is not with the lack of nonverbal cues, but with people who are easily offended.

    Or intentionally offended...

    I had a sig that was a quote from a co-worker about me: "You're a Mac user... you're left-handed... you eat Miracle Whip... *and* you're Polish? You're not from this planet!" One day some middle-manager type woman came up to me and informed me that my sig was offensive to her, as "eating Miracle Whip" was an offensive and suggestive comment in certain places, and that I had to change it, or she'd report me.

    Having only been there a few weeks, I changed it.

    Oddly enough, she failed to complain about my next sig, which was two quotes:

    "It's the Information Age... everything gets saved except the human soul" - Usenet posting
    "And as we drift along, I never fail to be astounded by the things we'll do for promises... and a song" - "All The Fools Sailed Away", Dio
  • by Rostin ( 691447 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @01:15PM (#15335689)
    The only new dimension of it is the speed and ease with which it is passed from one person to the next.

    Depends on what you mean. I think I agree that the difference between email and letter-writing is purely a function of speed and ease, but I don't think the difference is "simple." The care someone puts into writing an email is affected by the fact that the recipient can instantaneously reply and ask for clarification. The same operation with a letter might take days or weeks. An email is not just a faster letter. The content will typically be different.
  • by panthro ( 552708 ) <> on Monday May 15, 2006 @01:26PM (#15335779) Homepage

    The conclusions shown in the summary are given as causes of the misunderstandings (anecodotal and experimental) in TFA. I disagree somewhat. Though it is in the main logical to conclude that the problem lies in e-mail not properly conveying all the nuances of human verbal communication, I think the problem is more with the people than inherent limitations in the medium -- in other words, we have to mature into e-mail, it doesn't need to expand for us.*

    1. Lacks facial expressions? Emoticons really do work... especially in block communication like e-mail. It doesn't take long for someone to get used to emoticons as a "second language" of sorts to real-life facial expressions.
    2. Rushed communication? I disagree completely. E-mail, to me, allows me to take my time carefully crafting a message, allowing me to make sure it's worded right and get rid of ambiguities, prejudices, assumptions and errors. In contrast, talking in person often leads to useless circular banter and social faux-pas due to its instantaneous and rushed nature.
    3. Personal rapport? I tend to find e-mail (and other online/text-based) relationships a lot more robust than personal ones, because emotional responses are buffered by the text -- it's a lot harder to get mad at a page of text than a person, generally. Also, in combination with #1, this helps keep things professional and to the point.

    * The article itself basically confirms this by using extant prejudices and other such things as examples of how miscommunications occur -- these are things that we have to work to eliminate, not treat as givens and create solutions around!

  • by emmadw ( 768195 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @01:36PM (#15335875)
    And, many (including me!) people who have an HTML enabled client, disable the HTML facilities.
  • by WillAffleckUW ( 858324 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @01:47PM (#15335964) Homepage Journal
    In most emails, especially those I get from an international research team, I find that two other missing elements in emails are:

    1. Context - frequently, someone sends off an email, but the subject line references some other topic - they replied to you and changed the topic, but did not change the subject line Re: UDS Extract 1.2 forms to what it should be Kramer SNP Project Request, or they bury the context change in the middle of the text without warning - starting with one topic thanks for fixing the forms and then three paragraphs in, in what you thought was a routine thanks for all the fish email, you realize they had dropped in the fact that Earth is about to be destroyed and you need to appeal it in the subbasement filing cabinet last week but you haven't developed time travel.

    2. Replies - sometimes they have all these nested replies - my mother is famous for this, and then halfway down what just looks like reply re reply re reply re reply there's a lone sentence typed in that say oh, the car stopped working so we're spending your inheritence on taxi service but we can't be bothered having the car repaired since we must get on the internet now that we're retired.
  • I don't buy it. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 15, 2006 @02:14PM (#15336207)
    Where are all you athiests? This place is usually full of them. The reason I'm looking for athiests (although I'm not one) is because they usually put faith down with "it's not provable."

    OK, well this is provable, but I didn't see any mention in the story of any scientific research into the subject. Later on it says the guy studies negotiation, hardly what I'd call "science." Note not all communication is negotiation. In fact, most isn't, it's informative. I ask you something, you answer. I give an opinion, you agree or disagree and explain why I'm an idiot. Or I simply write to keep in touch. In fact, I don't think I've ever negotiated anything over email!

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

    Bullshit. People have been writing letters for thousands of years. And verbal language lacks clues to meaning that the written word has (although you wouldn't know it from the average newspaper headline or slashdot post). For example, I might be talking about a horse, and you might think I'm talking about whores. Windy=Wednesday, etc. (Yes, I'm getting old.)

    I can't see your face on my phone, either. Plus I get static, dropouts, and all kinds of crap that make it hard even for a young person to understand (I ditched my landline years ago).

    The problems I have with email (and slashdot posts) are that you damned kids can't spell! Did you lose your dog, or did you loose your dog? Two different verbs with two different meanings. If you spell "whores" as "horse," how in the hell am I supposed to know WTF you're talking about? "Your bad" has a completely different meaning than "you're bad." Which brings us to-

    Second, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness.

    Well, that's just plain laziness, kids. "Back in the day" when we made a typo we had to retype the whole thing (or X it out and start over). That's if we were even typing; most of us wrote in longhand. Try to get much info from MY bad handwriting!

    Finally, the inability to develop personal rapport over e-mail makes relationships fragile in the face of conflict.

    I don't see how lack of rapport leads to miscommunication, could one of you kind souls explain how that's supposed to work? And how it's different from a phone call or a handwritten letter?

    To avoid miscommunication, e-mailers need to look at what they write from the recipient's perspective, Epley says

    Epley doesn't sound too bright. You can't do this! You can try to guess; but they had it down hundreds of years ago - "it's as plain as the nose on your face." I can't see my nose. That's why newspapers employ (used to employ?) editors and proofreaders.

    "A typical e-mail has this feature of seeming like face-to-face communication," Professor Epley says.

    No it doesn't!

    "It's informal and it's rapid, so you assume you're getting the same paralinguistic cues you get from spoken communication."

    No I don't. Only an idiot would.

    E-mail's ambiguity has special implications for minorities and women, because it tends to feed the preconceptions of a recipient. "You sign your e-mail with a name that people can use to make inferences about your ethnicity," says Epley. A misspelling in a black colleague's e-mail may be seen as ignorance, whereas a similar error by a white colleague might be excused as a typo.

    That's the most racist and sexist paragraph I've read in a long time. Why would one assume a black (or a woman) is ignorant? Now, if he's writing in ebonics, then he IS ignorant, as ignorant as a cracker writing "ain't the winder purdy?"

    E-mail tends to be short and to the point. This may arise from the time pressures we feel when writing them: We know e-mail arrives as soon as we send it, so we feel we should write it quickly, too.

  • by SanityInAnarchy ( 655584 ) <> on Monday May 15, 2006 @04:23PM (#15337400) Journal
    I manage to sound reasonably intelligent without using big words all the time. My actual vocabulary is quite large, but my working vocabulary is much smaller -- I don't agonize over word choices. If I want to say "The room was dark," that's what I say. I don't say "The interior was black as obsidian." In fact, the former sentence makes more sense -- the latter could be talking about the color of the room, rather than the lighting.

    I prefer to create an effect through content, rather than presentation.

    It's just as easy to make a completely ambiguous statement with a 25k vocabulary as with a 10k vocabulary. It's just as possible to make an unambiguous statement with a 10k vocabulary as with a 25k vocabulary.

    As far as resolution goes, think about anime. Most anime could be rendered easily as vector graphics, if the artists had bothered to do so. Most anime can be compressed quite a bit, and I know a lot gets lost in translation. And yet, most anime is better than most American TV shows. I'd certainly say Trigun is easily better than, say, Stargate SG-1, which requires much better resolution to look good. And while anime is beginning to use more and more digital effects, it's still a pretty simple medium.

    For that matter, if you're just talking about resolution, Quake 2 looks far worse at 1600x1200 than Quake 4 does at 800x600. "But wait," you say, "that's simply because Quake 4 has far more polygons!" Well, yes. It has far more polygons and it uses them in different ways -- things like bump mapping, shaders, and particle effects that simply didn't exist for Quake 2. But the key here is, in this analogy, pixels are words, and polygons are ideas.

    Content over presentation is true sophistication. Big words are fake sophistication, the kind that people hate "elitists" for. There is a time and a place to use the word "obsidian", but not when "black" or "dark" would do just as well.
  • by filament ( 916631 ) on Monday May 15, 2006 @11:50PM (#15339938)
    I try to avoid using abbreviations in email and SMS (such as "CU l8er") and use proper punctuation because:

    1. It takes a negligably longer time to write proper words,
    2. I like to do things properly,
    3. I consider it polite, and
    4. I appreciate proper use of language and grammar.

    Unfortunately, the use of such shortcuts has become so rampant that when you don't use them people can mistake your succinct comments as curt or angry (perhaps in the "I'm speaking clearly and slowly because I'm absolutely furious" sense). A good friend took offense at such a message (which was intended to be in good humour) because I didn't use a smily. I tried to explain that if I'm unhappy/angry/offended I'll say so (where possible verbally), and in the absence of any smily a positive sentiment is to be assumed by default. Of course, that didn't cut it. My efforts in writing things 'properly' were completely wasted.

    Needless to say, my friend gets smilies in her SMSs now. You can't fight the smily. The smily always wins. ;)

Happiness is twin floppies.