The Pitfalls of E-mail

Research suggests that communicating via e-mail alone can doom a relationship.

By Marina Krakovsky, published on March 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We assume that the opportunity to edit our written words means we put our best foot forward, but research suggests that communicating via e-mail alone can doom a relationship.

Janice Nadler, a social psychologist and Northwestern University law professor, paired Northwestern law students with those from Duke University and asked each pair to agree on the purchase of a car. Researchers instructed each team to bargain entirely through e-mail, but half the subjects were secretly told to precede the negotiation with a brief getting-to-know-you chat on the phone. The results were dramatic: Negotiators who first chatted by phone were more than four times likelier to reach an agreement than those who used only e-mail. In the study, which appeared in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review, subjects who never spoke were not only more likely to hit an impasse, but they often felt resentful and angry about the negotiation.

While all sorts of online exchanges can be misunderstood, social scientists say that faceless strangers are especially likely to run into problems. "Through that initial phone call, people become real," says Susan Barnes, a professor of communication at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. Simply foregoing common pleasantries can make a message come across as rude—especially if communicators don't know each other. A rushed e-mail may give the impression that the exchange is unimportant. And, because first impressions set the tone for subsequent interaction, Barnes says, the exchange can quickly go downhill.

Nadler says the missing element in electronic communication is rapport, that in-sync state that's easier to establish in person or by phone. Facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice—all these social cues are missing in e-mail (and smiley-face "emoticons" can do only so much to replace them). But because messages travel almost instantly, people act as if they're in a face-to-face conversation, says David Falcone, a psychology professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Because of this illusion of proximity, we're duped into thinking we can communicate about touchy subjects, such as disagreements or criticisms, and that the tone of our writing will be perceived correctly.

Furthermore, says Nadler, just because we can send a message anytime doesn't mean someone is there to receive it. Yet people often fear a delayed reply is a potential blow-off.

And when we feel slighted, we are more apt to throw a fit via e-mail than we would by phone. "The anonymity of e-mail leads to rudeness," says Barnes, adding we may not feel accountable, especially if we've never actually spoken to the other person. Even if we mean well, the lack of second-by-second feedback, by which we constantly adjust our words in conversation, can cause us to go on blithely composing messages that will rub the recipient the wrong way. John Suler, a psychologist at New Jersey's Rider University who specializes in cyberspace behavior, believes that talking first on the phone might set expectations at an appropriate level—an effect that then carries over into the e-mail relationship.

The less we know someone, the more likely we are to engage in what therapists call transference, the tendency to project our desires or fears onto another person. Without social cues, says Falcone, these tendencies can run wild, causing us to interpret messages in ways that are "overly self-affirming and, potentially, extremely inaccurate." Suler adds that in the negotiation study, the initial phone call may have served as a "transference antidote," making the partners more real to each other.