Have Email Conversation Problems?

Email sometimes replaces other modes of communication like phoning or face-to-face conversation as the method of choice. It's quick, it's easy, it's a-synchronous. One click of the send button, and out goes your message. Mission accomplished!

But is your mission really accomplished? As it turns out (and as has been discovered by recent research) email conversations can have some significant downsides.

Conversing by email is like speaking to a stadium full of people without a sound system and big screen. No one can sense your nuances of voice and body and pacing of speech, and you are easily misunderstood.

For example, while face to face communication is rich in information, email tends to be information-poor. It often comes across as nuance-neutral, or "flat." Moreover, email tends to invite brevity of message and becomes a kind of telegraphic language that omits words that might color the message and give it a very different meaning than the one received and interpreted.

Why is this so? Because, as revealed by recent research in the field of social neuroscience, we get a great deal of a message's meaning because our brains mimic in its neurons what's happening in the other person's brain as we interact. But our computer screens do not have these channels from which we can pick up multiple signals when reading email.

Consider the analogy of tuning forks. Place them a few feet apart. When you hit one of them, the other fork will vibrate with the same frequency. Think of this as roughly similar to human empathy. If you place a shield between the forks, the mutual vibration won't occur, just as when the reception of a message is blocked between humans due to a variety of interferences such as noise or physical barriers.

In a forthcoming scholarly article, Professor Kristin Byron of Syracuse University found that email generally increases the likelihood of miscommunication and conflict. Why? Because, she says, we tend to misinterpret positive messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended.

When we write an email message, we tend to "hear" the emotions of that message internally. But the recipient of the message cannot pick up those cues because they are absent from the text. The receiver must often guess at the emotional tone of our message.

During the past few months I have had a professional exchange with a very high-energy and talkative woman I was consulting with. When I'd come across some information that could be valuable to her work, I'd send it to her with a few paragraphs of my own comments. Sometimes she'd respond and sometimes not. When she did respond by email, she included no comments, only a curt "Thanks."

I interpreted these brief responses as a bit rude that didn't really reciprocate the care I'd taken when making comments to her. As well, her brevity was far different from her communication style when we were face to face or on the telephone. The result: I rarely send her such information now because my attempts don't seem to be appreciated or reciprocated.

Fortunately, there is a partial remedy to the problem of email mis-communication. If we have developed and maintain a close familiarity with the other person, we may be able to "hear" their voice and perhaps even "see" their facial expressions when reading their email messages. It's a good practice to make sure that -- whenever possible -- we spend some "face time" with
those with whom we communicate online. Otherwise, we're just guessing. And, when guessing, we'll often be wrong in our interpretations.