Getting E-mail Right

Relationships that rely on e-mail may have an uphill battle. Even one short phone call can change the dynamic of an exchange.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We all know that personal relationships matter, and that no matter the quality of our ideas and our work, good relationships help us meet whatever goals we have.

But relationships that rely on e-mail may have an uphill battle. Consider this study by Janice Nadler, Ph.D., a psychologist and law professor at Northwestern University. She paired law students from Northwestern and Duke and asked each pair to agree on the purchase of a car. The teams were to bargain entirely through e-mail, but half of them were secretly told to precede the negotiation with a brief getting-to-know chat on the good old telephone.

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. Those who never spoke were not only more likely to hit an impasse; they also often felt resentful and angry about the negotiation. Of course, all sorts of online exchanges can be misunderstood, but faceless strangers are especially likely to run into problems. Simply foregoing common pleasantries, for example, can come across as rude, especially if communicators don’t know each other. A rushed email can give the impression that the exchange is unimportant. And because first impression set the tone for subsequent interactions, the exchange can go downhill quickly from there.

The missing element in electronic communications is rapport, says Dr. Nadler. Facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice are all cues missing in e-mail (and smiley-face emoticons can do only so much to replace them). But because messages travel instantly, people act as if they’re in face-to-face conversation. This illusion of proximity dupes us into thinking we can communicate about tough subjects, such as disagreements or criticism, and that the tone of our writing will be perceived correctly.

And just because you can send a message anytime doesn’t mean there will be someone there to receive it. Yet people often fear a delayed reply is a potential blow-off—and feeling slighted renders us more apt to throw a fit by e-mail than by phone.

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.

The less we know someone, the more likely we are to engage in what psychologists know as transference—the tendency to project our desires and fears onto another person. Without social cues, such tendencies can run amok, causing us to interpret messages in ways that are overly self-affirming and potentially extremely inaccurate.

• Don’t skimp on personal introductions. Trust is built more easily after a chat. • It’s good to get to the point, but forgetting simple greetings can sound curt. • Don’t mistake a delayed response for passive aggression or a blow-off. • Don’t send e-mail in the heat of anger. Your words may haunt you. • Worried that nuance will be lost in the electronic word? Pick up the phone.