Research from NYU Stern Professor Justin Kruger shows that where email is concerned, there is frequently a wide divide between what the sender of a message intends and how the content of that message is perceived by the receiver. Says Kruger: “Overestimating the obviousness of one’s intentions can lead to insufficient allowances for ambiguities in communication—with occasionally destructive results.”
Problems arise because emails can’t convey body language, facial expressions, or vocal tone. In personal emails we might counterbalance this “flatness” with emoticons (i.e. smiley or sad faces), or acronyms like JK (just kidding). But these are often not business appropriate. Then there’s the problem of CAPITAL LETTERS, which a sender might use to suggest IMPORTANCE, but which receivers usually interpret as YELLING.
What to do? Be mindful in the workplace. Reread what you wrote before pressing send. If you think your email message might be at all ambiguous, take the time to insert a clarifying line or pick up the phone instead. Goldman Sachs and Farmers insurance are among the many companies teaching the value of pausing and paying attention when communicating at work rather than racing through the day on autopilot. This focus on conscious communication is what we have been advocating for decades.
Please share your experience: Have you ever had an email misunderstanding that could have been avoided? What happened when you reconsidered before sending your emails? Share your responses to the weekly discussion question here.
1/21/2014 04:34:20 am
Hi all, love this communication capsule. It is so easy to misrepresent what you are trying to say in email, and so easy to misinterpret what someone else is saying. I have heard about some organisations that have banned all internal email. Sounds extreme and logistically difficult but love the way in which it forces people to actually talk to each other. In my experience people are more likely to talk to each other if their message is positive but can tend to hide behind email if the message is somewhat difficult. Ironic because that is exactly when they should be using face to face communication.
1/22/2014 12:46:40 am
I always try to read over my emails before pressing the "send" button. Sometimes I will even read the email aloud to make sure it has the right tone and feel. I also think it's important to avoid sarcasm, or similar things, that might be misunderstood.
1/23/2014 08:50:53 am
I just want to thank you for the "Communication Capsule " in general. The topics are really helpful and many of us, in my office, will discuss the topic but not necessarily reply here. Thank you for your good work in communications!
1/24/2014 05:35:19 am
Thank you Andrea, Callie and Jamie.
1/26/2014 05:04:44 am
I have a mantra "if in doubt check it out". this cam about due to sending an email to a member of staff which from my perspective was practical i.e. responding to his question. However I was a tad flip at the end which I thought was light hearted. Within seconds of sending , the recipient rang me “Have I offended you in some way?” he asked “your email sounded a bit harsh”. We resolved the matter quickly but it was a lesson I have never forgotten,. I know now from Peter and Susan’s work this young mana used “perception checking’, so if in doubt check it out!
1/27/2014 02:46:41 am
I get two kernels from your message, Pat:
Except for very short, to the point, replies to emails, I make it a point to review them before sending. Emailing not conveying any emotions or feelings as well as being there in person CAN be a very positive thing. I spoke in person with someone recently who is frequently misunderstood in person because of her overbearing and overly emotional way of talking. I suggested to her that she email some people she wanted to discuss a sensitive matter with, because she could do that without the emotions coming thru.
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