E-Mail communications are fraught with dangers not present in face-to-face or telephone communications. Human beings are programmed to communicate with more than just words.
Take the example of a simple apology. When you offer or receive an apology in person, you instinctively interpret the sincerity of that apology by reading facial expressions and body language, among other things. The difference in result between an obligatory “sorry” from a heartfelt apology is striking.
In general, people do not turn off their instincts when reading an e-mail. The problem is that there are no physical cues so we read into it what the writer meant from the words alone, the context of the e-mail, and a variety of other factors that are probably wholly irrelevant to the sincerity of the offer. In a worst case, the lack of any physical cues could lead to a complete disconnect between what the sender intended and what the reader received.
In a renowned research article, Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think?, Professor Justin Kruger and others found that most people overestimate their ability to communicate effectively through e-mail. Of course, the inflexion of our voice, the tone, the context, and even facial expressions we use to communicate meaning are absent in e-mail communications. Likewise, face to face communication also provides the communicator with some feedback on how the message is being received giving the communicator an opportunity to clarify or correct a misunderstanding. Feedback usually lacking in electronic communications.
“Because e-mail communicators “hear” a statement differently depending on whether they intend to be, say, sarcastic or funny, it can be difficult to appreciate that their electronic audience may not.”
Senders generally overestimated how accurately the recipients would understand whether the message was serious, sarcastic, etc. without the cues provided by tone, context, inflexion, facial expression etc. This overestimation occurred regardless of how well the sender and recipient knew each other. As a result, email often increases the potential for miscommunication leading to more conflict in the first place and more difficulty in negotiating a resolution when conflict arises.
The research suggests that not only is an e-mail more likely to be misunderstood but that both parties are likely to find it difficult to understand where the communication went awry. As the title of the article suggests, this is born from ego-centrism. That is the message sender knows exactly what they are trying to convey and struggles to see any ambiguity.
Of course, it is nearly impossible to avoid all e-mail negotiations but understanding the different ways meaning is communicated in person or by phone that are lost in e-mails may prevent significant misunderstandings.