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Why Is There So Much Miscommunication Via Email and Text?

How we interpret electronic messages is shaped by our feelings.

How many times have you read an email or text and felt an instant, heated wave of irritation? Or felt hurt? Or disregarded?

These are familiar experiences for us all. Without any information other than words—typically, very few words—the meaning we make out of the cryptic electronic messages we receive is necessarily shaped by our own feelings and expectations. Consequently, what we believe is being said may have very little to do with what the author wishes to communicate.

Not good.

Emotional agitation often ensues:

“How could they write such a thing?”

“What is going on here?”

“I knew they didn’t like me!”

“I am not going to stand for this!”

Before we know it, we are furiously tapping out a reply that often increases the bad feeling exponentially. Or we forward the note to a friend for confirmation of its awfulness. Or we (indignantly or petulantly or fearfully) don’t reply at all.

Let’s take a deep breath.

How the miscommunication happens

In the absence of facial expression, tone of voice, gesture or good old-fashioned “vibe,” we have very little to help us discern what the other person is trying to tell us. Without these clarifying cues, we frequently “fill in the blanks” with our customary worries and assumptions.

So, if we are given to feeling criticized, we will read criticism into the words. If we are nervous about being rejected, “evidence” confirming this will be easily discovered. If we are anxious about demands being made on us, many messages will read as imperatives.

To complicate matters further, our relationship with the specific person who has sent the message—our particular thoughts and feelings about them—also informs the way in which we fill in the unknown or unclear parts of the communication, the blanks.

My patients arrive regularly with texts and emails to read aloud as support for the bad behavior of the note’s author. They read the messages with distinct tone and inflection to dramatize what they know to be the voice with which the note was composed—one of self-centeredness or contempt or disregard or disinterest or directive.

No doubt, their interpretations are often accurate. But the only thing I can access with any certainty is what my patient assumes and feels—I have little idea of what the author “really” wanted to impart. Words may be read and understood in an almost infinite number of ways.

For example, here are a few sentences that might easily be a text or email:

“Can you pick up milk and cookies? I forgot when I was out earlier. Glad you’ll be here soon.”

This seems simple and straightforward. But, for one who is sent this note by a spouse with whom there is sometimes strain about who purchases the food and/or what time each of them returns home, it might be read as dripping with sarcasm or accusation. It is not, however, clear that this would be intended. In fact, the writer might have been feeling particularly cozy toward their partner at that moment, with no awareness of how their words might be received.

Now imagine this message was sent by a kindergarten teacher to her assistant. If the assistant is harboring resentment and feels exploited, it might be understood as an expression of the head teacher’s entitlement as she asks her assistant casually and without apology to take care of something for her. However, the head teacher may have meant to convey breezy collegiality, never suspecting that her note was causing her assistant to seethe.

Finally, picture the in-love person waiting anxiously for word from the beloved with regard to their evening plan. This message might feel insufficiently smitten or romantic, thus prompting disappointment and distress. The unwitting writer might have actually felt much enthusiasm for the upcoming rendezvous—sincerely “glad” for its arrival—and somewhat sheepish about having forgotten some items for their dinner.

What we can do

First, heed the standard, but nonetheless wise, counsel to count to 10 or (1000) before hitting send on a hastily crafted reply. Then, during this interval, ask yourself: Can I understand this message in another way? That is, in a way other than the one you find upsetting.

Try to think of an alternative interpretation featuring the author’s goodwill toward you (or, at least, the absence of malevolence). Do this to create some space between you and your conviction; require your mind and feelings to redirect, if only fleetingly.

Of course, your initial take on the message’s tone and intent might be entirely correct. The point is we cannot be assured of this—there is always uncertainty inherent in fully comprehending another person’s mind and heart. Especially if their expression arrives via email or text.

The exercise of considering distressing emails and texts from a different perspective highlights how thoroughly—and often!—our understanding is shaped by emotions and imaginings from inside ourselves. Allowing for this recognition offers us the possibility of composing a more measured and less defensive reply.

About the author: Melissa Ritter, Ph.D., is a psychologist-psychoanalyst practicing in New York City.

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