A Drawback of Email? Miscommunication!

Released: 2/14/2007 12:00 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University
Contact Information

Available for logged-in reporters only

Citations Academy of Management Review

Newswise — Email communication has undoubtedly transformed the way we conduct business—in fact, by some estimates, more than 100 billion emails are sent daily by approximately 1.1 billion users.

This efficient, flexible, and simple tool for communication has also affected how we express ourselves, and how we interpret the expressions of others. The lack of cues and feedback in email makes messages that might be unambiguously conveyed in face-to-face communication difficult to interpret when sent by email.

In fact, new research from Kristin Byron, assistant professor of management in the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University, suggests that those 1.1 billion email users may be expressing and interpreting emotions in email more often than we think. Evidence suggests that employees often unintentionally and intentionally express and " often inaccurately perceive " emotions in emails at work.

And ignoring the possibility that emails can carry emotional content makes miscommunication all the more likely.

"Employees need to be aware that co-workers or clients may be perceiving emotional content from the emails they send—whether they intend to communicate emotions or not," says Byron. "The use of exclamation points, asterisks, or capital letters, the length of the message, even the use of emoticons all can be used or perceived to communicate emotion. Yet these are ambiguous in email communication " and are often discouraged from use in the workplace " and therefore may be misinterpreted."

Byron's paper, forthcoming in the Academy of Management Review, finds that the lack of nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and body language combined with delayed feedback compounds this misinterpretation. The paper further indicates that while employees are able to identify when a coworker or client has inaccurately conveyed emotion, they are unable to identify the same problem in themselves.

"A first step toward improving accuracy in emails is to recognize the possibility that we are fallible as both email senders and receivers," says Byron.

"Miscommunication in emails can be caused by senders' inability to accurately convey their intended meaning and by receivers' inability to accurately perceive the sender's intended meaning."

The good news is there are solutions to potential miscommunications as a result of email. "Email users who use established, shared cues to communicate emotion or who seek clarity by repeating important information may end up more accurately expressing their emotions by email," says Byron.

Those same techniques can be used in reading emails as well—recipients who ask clarifying questions or restate the intention of an email are more likely to perceive emotions more accurately.

Other techniques include offering training on the use of email at work and, when possible, favoring face-to-face communication until a new relationship becomes more established.

Why should a company or organization care about inaccurate emotion perception among employees? Emotions provide cues and information to guide behavior. When those emotions are misinterpreted in an email message at work, it becomes more difficult to make informed decisions about how to respond appropriately.

"Emotions play an important role in relationship development and group identity. So failure to accurately convey emotions may inhibit relationships between co-workers or with clients and customers," says Byron. "With the increasing reliance on email in the workplace, understanding how to effectively communicate emotions by email is crucial."


Comment/Share