E-mail Talk Requires Special Handling to Avoid Fireworks

Article ID: 520243

Released: 4-May-2006 6:50 PM EDT

Source Newsroom: Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)

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Newswise — The next time you are ready to fire off a quick reply to an e-mail message, think twice, says a communication studies specialist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

In fact, you might want to wait 24 hours before responding, particularly if it involves a controversial or emotional situation, says Jennifer Cochrane, a senior lecturer who teaches online and utilizes computer-mediated interpersonal communication, such as e-mail, with students and faculty almost exclusively. She also directs the online teaching and learning program for the Department of Communication Studies at IUPUI, Indiana's urban health sciences campus.

"What makes e-mail so tricky is that people whip off e-mail responses quickly, and because they lack the non-verbal modifiers like eye contact, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc., they can be perceived ambiguously," Cochrane said.

Those ambiguous responses can often ruffle a recipient's feathers.

"It's not so much etiquette, it's poorly-written communication and little or no knowledge about how computers mediate the message," says Cochrane, who admits to having unintentionally upset an e-mail reader on an occasion or two.

Once, she had to call an angry student in for an office visit in order to apologize and explain that what he thought her e-mail message said, wasn't what she was trying to communicate. As she reviewed her message and the circumstances during which it was sent, it was easy to see where her intended message got muddled.

The ambiguity of e-mail messages stems from what can't come across over a keyboard and across the Web, the IUPUI lecturer said.

When you are talking to someone via e-mail, your tone of voice, gestures and other non-verbal messages -- which are said to make up as much as 65-90% percent of communication -- don't come across.

The problem with e-mail communication is that your readers "can't see the twinkle in your eyes when your words are smacking them upside their heads," Cochrane said.

"Everything you say in an e-mail is intensified, because we don't have the non-verbal signals to modify the message," Cochrane said. "It causes huge problems like flaming."

Text messages are probably the only exceptions.

Text messages involve certain abbreviated grammatical conventions, and senders don't have high expectations of the conversation, the lecturer explained.

With the exception of text messaging, computer " mediation" has the ability to change or modify "what comes out of our brains, and rolls off our fingertips," Cochrane said.

"E-mail users should read each message very closely two or three times and should not take comments personally," the lecturer said. "Try counting to 10 if it is a negative or hurtful situation or (if possible) wait 24 hours to respond. Not responding is also an option! "

"We can get things done really fast with e-mail, but we may regret our response if we don't take the time to craft an appropriately worded response with the proper' tone of voice'," Cochrane said. "Taking the time to craft an effective message is counter-intuitive in the speedy world of e-mail communication."

"And some things should never be said in an e-mail message because your message may not be interpreted just exactly the way you intended. When precision, nuance, and personal intent is paramount, e-mail may not be the communication method of choice." Cochrane says.


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