I sent an email to my buddy whose office was two doors from mine. I asked him if he wanted to grab lunch. When I read his reply, I clenched my teeth and my leg began shaking as it does when I get angry. I stood up an paced a few times, wondering if I should barge into his office and straighten out his disrespectful email reply or just let it go.
His message had no subject line. Apparently, that would have required too much effort for him. I'm annoyed when an email arrives with no subject line. The time the sender saves by skipping a subject line is passed to me when I have to open the message to see what it's about. In this case, the blank subject annoyed me more than usual.
I clicked the email open and saw two only words in the message body: am busy
Here's what I inferred from his two-worded email: I don't respect you enough to type you a whole sentence -you'll figure out my shorthand. Also, you aren't worth capitalizing or punctuating. Finally, you're bugging me so stop.
I counted -his message took seven keystrokes. He could have picked up the phone and dialed my extension in three!
I walked to his office, but before I could address his "e-dissing," he told me that the muffled yelling I heard while I had been reading his email message was a heated phone call with his ex-wife. Then his email reply made sense.
I had taken it all wrong. The form of his email had nothing to do with me or any disrespect toward me at all. In the proper context, his severely abbreviated message was understandable. I had inferred a number of emotional messages that he hadn't sent.
Email is a tricky, if not ineffective way to convey emotions. The immediacy of email can make it seem like face-to-face communication, but it is missing body language, tone of voice, eye contact and other cues that do convey emotion.
Professor Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago conducted a study on email communication. He says, "It's informal and it's rapid, so you assume you're getting the same paralinguistic cues you get form spoken communication." The study concluded that not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but email recipients also overestimate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.
The speed of email can create urgency for quick replies. But a hasty reply may not be as carefully written as it would be with pen and paper. Psychologists Massimo Bertacco and Antonella Deponte call this urgency "speed facilitation." Because of the speed of email and typically-shorter messages, emailers are less likely to "ground" their communication in shared memories than letter writers -who are on postal timetables.
A way to lessen the ambiguity of your own email messages is to try reading them aloud before you click Send. If it can be taken the wrong way, then, revise.
Email is an excellent medium for the rapid exchange of objective data, such as scheduling, giving instructions and descriptions. But criticism, subtle intentions and emotions are better communicated by phone and, best, face to face.