On Travel - From Heaven Lake | Main | In appreciation, Herbert Howells

February 9, 2006

Mis-interpreting E-mail

As our college transitions into oblivion, all faculty and staff who have been on Groupwise (TM) are having to move our e-mails to the university's server (Mozilla Thunderbird - what name will they come up with next?) I'm in the midst of culling through thousands of e-mails sent and received over the past 10 years or so. This handy mode of communication is quickly becoming a burden. Even though I can go for a whole week without my phone ringing once, I probably get 100 e-mails a day. That's 36,500 per year. In addition to all the "helpful" communications from every office at the university, every professional organization to which I belong, and every listserv to which I subscribe, I get bunches from colleagues and students around the world. (You'd be surprised how many students I've never met want me to help write their papers for them.) I'm getting VERY tired of the Viagra ads, software sales, paypal warnings, and offers to help Nigerian royalty in need. But I digress...

Today's issue of the APA Monitor (Feb 2006) reported a study (Kruger & Epley, JPSP, 2005, 89, 925-936) about people's accuracy in interpreting the meaning and tone of e-mail messages. They found that "people overestimate both their ability to convey their intended tone - be it sarcastic, serious or funny - when they send an e-mail, as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages others send to them." (p. 16). The reason they cite is egocentrism, peoples' inability to see the perspective of the other person.

In one study, Kruger and Epley found that people more accurately interpreted communications in vocal messages (e.g., phone) than in text-based ones. They conducted experiments in which students read messages over the phone or delivered them by e-mail. In the case of the phone communications, both sender and recipient were 76+% accurate about the other person's tone and its meaning. But in the case of e-mail, "the partners who read the statements over e-mail, though, had only a 56 percent success rate - not much better than chance."

The moral of the story: If you want to make sure the full meaning and the emotional tone of your message are understood, best pick up the phone occasionally.

Posted by hgroteva at February 9, 2006 9:38 AM | Life | Technology


Sounds like an interesting article, Hal. I wonder if part of the issue is the relative novelty of the technology? In other words, had some APA researchers been around during the dawn of the new gadget called the telephone, might they have found similar results? One hypothesis is that over time social norms and "codeswitching" abilities will develop that will aid with email interpretive accuracy.

Then, of course, we'll just have to worry about interpreting whatever new communication mode exists...

~From one student source of your 100 daily emails! (*smile*)

Posted by: Yvette at February 9, 2006 11:22 AM