What Are You Really Trying To Say?

People remember about 10% of what you say and 90% of how you make them feel.

This phrase is true in any conversation, one on one or one to many.  The emotional interpretation of what we say to each other is a powerful component in how we determine intent and thus the resulting relationship.  In verbal or physical interactions we have a natural understanding of how to decode vocal inflection or facial cues to assist in that interpretation.  Most of the time, that serves us pretty well.

In the technology era we have become ever more reliant on "written" communication such as email, online chatting, texting, twitter, facebook, and instant messaging.  In many office work environments, email has become the defacto or even required communication platform.  In 2005, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study called "Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think?" (by Justin Krueger and Nicholas Epley)  In it they conducted numerous experiments that revealed that we are grossly overconfident in both our ability to communicate emotion or meaning in email and our ability to interpret it.  In general, we only have a 50-50 chance of getting it right.

"Without the benefit of paralinguistic cues such as gesture, emphasis, and intonation, it can be difficult to convey emotion and tone over electronic mail (e-mail). Five experiments suggest that this limitation is often underappreciated, such that people tend to believe that they can communicate over e-mail more effectively than they actually can. Studies 4 and 5 further suggest that this overconfidence is born of egocentrism, the inherent difficulty of detaching oneself from one’s own perspective when evaluating the perspective of someone else. 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."

This is some very interesting research and it raises the question of how to become more proficient at including the ancillary emotional cues when writing?  Is this an issue with the English language or just our command of it?  Do all languages have this same issue, or does the English language make this more difficult?  Do we need to evolve language in general to be more conducive to the written form?

For those of us who are less eloquent with the English language, here are some tips to follow that will help avoid unintentionally sending an offensive email:
  • Avoid the one-liner.  Well developed tone lies in the context of what you write.  There is generally not enough context in a single sentence to avoid multiple meanings.  Our misguided urgency to hit the send button will be offended by this, but it only takes another 30 seconds to add two or three more sentences.
  • Use an emoticon.  This is frowned on in more formal writing, however it can go a long way to take the edge off of an otherwise ambiguous statement.
  • Re-read the email for tone before you hit send.  Just pause and attempt to divorce yourself from how you "hear" it.  If you read it out loud, is it easy to read with a completely different intent?  
  • If you are emotional or even frustrated when you write the email, simply step away from the computer for a few minutes before doing this.  If you aren't sure what the tone is, don't send it.
  • Make a phone call instead.  It's surprising how often we could just pick up the phone or walk down the hall to the person's office and have the conversation.
Leave a comment about other techniques that have worked for you.

Photo taken by: Ben Ward.  Enjoy his work on Flickr.

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