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Why Email Is Only 7 Percent as Effective as Talking

... and 4 ways to make it better.

The development of email and texting has enhanced our ability to communicate productively, efficiently, and quickly. But, based on new research into how human communication works, it's easy to see a downside to our over-reliance on emails and texts. In fact, some of our online habits may be undermining our efforts at communicate successfully.

For example, have you ever made a joke in an email that didn’t go over well because the recipient couldn’t discern your sarcasm (even with the addition of an emoji)? Research by UCLA psychology professor emeritus Albert Mehrabian found that 7 percent of a message was derived from the words, 38 percent from the intonation, and 55 percent from the facial expression or body language. In other words, the vast majority of communication is not carried by our words alone.

Not surprisingly, research shows we communicate most effectively in real-life, real-time conversation. New neurological evidence shows that effective communication physically resounds in the brain of the receiver, echoing the thoughts and sentiments of the communicator by inducing and shaping neurological responses. A remarkable study led by Princeton University’s Greg Stephens determined through fMRI brain scans that in both the communicator and listener, similar regions of the brain fired when engaged in unrehearsed, real-life story telling, leading the team to conclude that our brain cells actually synchronize during successful communication. As the study says:

“The findings shown here indicate that during successful communication, speakers’ and listeners’ brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled response patterns. Such neural coupling substantially diminishes in the absence of communication. Moreover, more extensive speaker-listener neural couplings result in more successful communication.”

The deeper the conversation, the more deeply our minds meld. In some instances, the listener’s brain patterns actually anticipate where the story is going, in deep rapport with the speaker.

These findings support studies that link “mirror” neurons to empathy. The neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team discovered that empathy is mediated by neurons in the brain’s motor system. These “mirror neurons,” as Rizzolatti named them, give humans the capacity for shared experiences by enabling us to project ourselves into the minds, emotions, and actions of others through the direct simulation of feeling, not thinking. This happens best live and in person rather than through the shadowy substitutes of digital communication.

As it happens, online communication may have given rise to completely different standards of trustworthiness. Judy Olson, a professor of information and computer sciences whop has researched the essentials of building trust in digital communication, found that in the absence of traditional trust indicators like voice intonation, emotional expression, and body language in online, text-based messages, research participants default to speed of response as a key marker of trustworthiness.

The mind is a prediction machine and pattern recognizer that hates an open loop or unresolved pattern. On the web, this trigger is often exploited through headlines that beg for closure like: "What happened next will blow your mind." We are compelled to click on the link to resolve the uncertainty. Similarly, not getting a response to email can cause significant if unintended psychological unrest. But in an email-default communication environment, the non-response has become the norm for messages that appear to lack urgency. In some ways, it may be better to give someone bad news than no news at all.

Given what we've learned, here are a few suggestions on how to enhance your own text-based communication:

  1. Play it straight. We don’t process communication on face value: Our minds work mostly through implicit inference, not direct suggestion. We look for the hidden meaning, often times to avoid deception or unmask others' agendas. As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins puts it, “We are evolved to second-guess the behaviors of others by becoming brilliant intuitive psychologists.” The best bet, then, is to be clear rather than clever.
  2. Close the loop. Have you ever reached out to someone to congratulate or compliment them and not heard back? That sense of injustice and anger you felt is not healthy, for either party. It’s a violation of our most deeply ingrained social norm of reciprocal altruism to repay in kind what others have done for or to you. Do you really need people hating on you for such a simple omission? Acknowledge what you've received.
  3. Respond quickly. As the digital age obviates the need for live interactions, gaining trust becomes more of a challenge. Person-to-person interactions carry benefits (such as facial expressions and gestures) that facilitate the manner in which humans typically generate trust. Trust is the glue that binds people and the means by which we succeed as social beings who rely on the resources of others. In the absence of these cues, research would indicate that, as a rule of thumb, if you are quick to reply, others will respect you more (even if your message is not what they want to hear).
  4. Move the conversation offline. For an important message, try phone calls, video conference, or in-person talks. Phone has the benefit of real-time conversation and the inclusion of the intonation of one’s voice to convey the real meaning of their words—as does using Skype or Google Hangouts, which can add the further contextual cues of body language and help complete the picture. (In general, video conference services are underrated and underused.) But by far the best way is to sit down in person, a rarity these days as we increasingly hide behind emails—and sometimes pay a price for it.

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