Avoid Email Miscommunication

Woman emailing

[Photo by larskflem]

The tone of an email is incredibly easy to misinterpret, explains emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman, writing in the New York Times. The main problem is there is no channel to convey our emotion – other than emoticons which are notoriously crude.

We’ve all done it: written something that’s meant to be a joke in an email and then received a cold response when the message is misunderstood. Or received an email we can’t make head nor tail of. Is this a joke or are they being serious?

Causes of miscommunication

Common email misperceptions include:

  • Positive emails are reinterpreted as neutral while neutral emails become negative.
  • Recipients rate jokes as less funny than the person who sent them.
  • Emailers overestimate how effectively they can communicate feelings.
  • Recipients also overestimate how well they can understand feelings.
  • Small initial differences between email correspondents can easily grow, sometimes causing the breakdown of relationships.

The cause of these misperceptions is the gap between how we feel when we are writing and the ambiguous meaning of the actual words on the screen. As we are writing we ‘hear’ the emotional content of an email, but forget there’s no way to telepathically send this emotional content to the recipient. Researchers suggest we do this because people are naturally egocentric, we assume that others understand how we are feeling when often they don’t.

Avoiding miscommunication

The solutions are pretty simple, but that doesn’t make them any less important:

  • We’re less likely to misunderstand someone we know well. If you need to be on someone’s wavelength, get to know them face-to-face or on the phone. This can create a buffer of good feeling, then email exchanges will be smoother.
  • Think about emails from the recipients perspective.
  • Take time to write an effective email. Because of the medium it’s easy to knock out short messages that can be interpreted as rude.

Is email dying?

Perhaps these problems will soon be a thing of the past as younger generations adopt newer communication technologies. US studies of teen internet habits are starting to show a clear preference for instant messaging and text messaging. The bad news is that many youngsters see email as ‘for old people’.

Of course reports of email’s demise are seriously mistaken. But it’s useful to remember that when emailing anyone under the age of 25, there’s a good chance of a catastrophic communication failure – they might simply never read it.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 7 October 2007

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Images: Creative Commons License