Avoiding Email Catastrophe

Email lacks the non-verbal intonation of our intentions, and therefore often confuses and even offends readers.

By Louise Dobson, published on April 5, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We've all done it. Hurriedly composed a witty email, hit the send button and sat back to await the electronic belly laugh that the reply is sure to include. Minutes tick by, lunch comes and goes, the day winds down with no response. Finally, you reach for the phone and call your email buddy for the overdue giggle fest, only to find she's furious with you. You thought you were making a hilarious joke—but she completely misunderstood.

How could this happen? Apparently, with over 75 million people using email every day in the U.S., it happens all the time. And it's not just humor that gets misinterpreted in emails: Messages meant to convey mild displeasure can come across as tirades, and serious comments can be misconstrued as snide sarcasm.

In fact, in a series of studies, participants were only able to accurately communicate sarcasm and humor in barely half—56 percent—of the emails they sent. What's worse, most people had no idea that they weren't making themselves understood.

According to Nicholas Epley, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, our natural tendency toward egocentrism is at the root of the problem. It's not that we're all narcissists: People just have a tough time detaching themselves from their own perspective and imagining how their statements could be "heard" differently.

The fact that we're usually very good at making ourselves understood is also what trips us up in the email domain. "We're all so adept at processing nonverbal cues that we do it without thought, in a happy-go-lucky way." So much so, that we often don't recognize ambiguous meanings, like in that dashed-off email that could be read two different ways.

When communication is stripped down to mere words, the stage is set for confusion. Talking to someone face-to-face, in contrast, provides us with mountains of information that we unconsciously use to inform our interpretations.

We understand, for example, that if someone suddenly and dramatically widens their eyes ("flashbulb eyes") they are expressing surprise. A shrug of the shoulders may indicate confusion. Hands in a palms-down position often suggests assertiveness, whereas upward facing palms shows vulnerability or non-aggression.

We're even pretty good at detecting false cues, such as the fake smile of a harried shop clerk. A heartfelt smile will not only lengthen the mouth, but also turn it up at corners. In addition, a real smile creates crow's feet wrinkles around the eyes.

No one is quite sure how much of our communication is nonverbal. The statistics of anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell suggest it's around 65 percent, but other scientists put it as high as 93 percent.

Unfortunately, as David Givens, Director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Washington points out, our writing skills have not yet begun to compensate for the lack of data that is inherent in written communication. "Perhaps a case could be made for an email writing section to be included in English classes," suggests Givens.

Epley recommends basic reflection. "Re-reading an email can reveal potential problems," he says. "Better still, read it aloud and listen closely for ambiguity." For important emails, Epley suggests walking away from the computer and coming back to it later with fresh eyes.

And for those who just don't trust themselves to be courteous. Eudora, the software manufacturer, added a feature to its email software that detects strings of words that have the potential to offend. "Mood Watch" alerts the user to incendiary phrases with red chili pepper icons, one, two, or three of them depending upon the potential to burn.

The feature provides a safety net for catching those heat-of-the-moment emails, but Eudora reps admit that, like the rest of us, "Mood Watch" is often completely baffled by electronic sarcasm.