Insight

What Psychologists Know that You Don’t

Oops! I apologize for not being the person you meant to email.

Why communicating electronically can be so difficult.

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Let's face it. Communicating with our fellow human beings is difficult enough without trying to do it electronically. What I offer next are a few psychological principles intended to help you understand why we all need to be extra careful when expressing our thoughts and feelings via email (that is, if we want to get along with others).

Principles of communication (and examples of bad email responses):

(a) People tend to blame others for their own mistakes. I happen to have a very common first initial and last name where I work, and thus I frequently get emails meant for other people. When I get them, I want to tell the sender about the mistake, so that he or she can contact the intended recipient. Yet I know that the sender might become agitated to discover the mistake and might blame me for it. Therefore, the sender might not like to hear, "You sent this to the wrong email address."

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(b) People are sensitive to rejection. Human beings have a fundamental need to belong, and we don't like being rejected by anyone -- not even strangers. So if you happen to have sent an email to someone who didn't want it, you might find yourself a little hurt by a simple response like, "Please remove me from your distribution list."

(c) Bad is stronger than good. People tend to weigh negative events more heavily than positive events. Therefore, when we say negative things in our email correspondence, people will hone right in on those negative statements. This puts extra pressure on us to offset critical email comments with praise and positive comments within the same email message as the critical comment. Here is a poor email message, "The manager said that you did a nice job overall. However, you missed several items in the report."

So what can you do to communicate better when you do get a wrong email, want to get taken off a distribution list, or need to give critical feedback? Here is what I recommend:

For the wrong email: "Hey, as much as I would love to be the person who was meant to get this message, I am not. I am Anita Kelly, not Allison Kelly, and just wanted to let you know!"

For removal from a distribution list: "I think I might be on this distribution list by mistake. Could you please remove me from this list because I know that I will not be able to participate in the events you describe? Thank you very much!"

For giving critical feedback in an email: Don't. Save it for face-to-face communication so that you can gauge how the other person is reacting and soften your tone if the person is taking it harder than you expected.

 

Anita E. Kelly, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame. She is author of The Clever Student and The Psychology of Secrets.

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