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E-mail communication has undoubtedly transformed the way we conduct business – in fact, by some estimates, more than 100 billion e-mails are sent daily by approximately 1.1 billion users.
This efficient, flexible and simple tool for communication has also affected how we express ourselves, and how we interpret the expressions of others. The lack of cues and feedback in e-mail makes messages that might be unambiguously conveyed in face-to-face communication difficult to interpret when sent by e-mail.
In fact, new research from Kristin Byron, assistant professor of management in the Whitman School of Management at
And, ignoring the possibility that e-mails can carry emotional content makes miscommunication all the more likely.
“Employees need to be aware that co-workers or clients may be perceiving emotional content from the e-mails they send – whether they intend to communicate emotions or not,” says Byron. “The use of exclamation points, asterisks, or capital letters, the length of the message, even the use of emoticons all can be used or perceived to communicate emotion. Yet these are ambiguous in e-mail communication – and are often discouraged from use in the workplace – and therefore may be misinterpreted.”
Byron’s paper, forthcoming in the
“A first step toward improving accuracy in e-mails is to recognize the possibility that we are fallible as both e-mail senders and receivers,” says Byron. “Miscommunication in e-mails can be caused by senders’ inability to accurately convey their intended meaning and by receivers’ inability to accurately perceive the sender’s intended meaning.”
The good news is there are solutions to potential miscommunications as a result of e-mail. “E-mail users who use established, shared cues to communicate emotion or who seek clarity by repeating important information may end up more accurately expressing their emotions by e-mail,” says Byron.
Those same techniques can be used in reading e-mails as well – recipients who ask clarifying questions or restate the intention of an e-mail are more likely to perceive emotions more accurately.
Other techniques include offering training on the use of e-mail at work and, when possible, favoring face-to-face communication until a new relationship becomes more established.
Why should a company or organization care about inaccurate emotion perception among employees? Emotions provide cues and information to guide behavior. When those emotions are misinterpreted in an e-mail message at work, it becomes more difficult to make informed decisions about how to respond appropriately.
“Emotions play an important role in relationship development and group identity. So failure to accurately convey emotions may inhibit relationships between co-workers or with clients and customers,” says Byron. “With the increasing reliance on e-mail in the workplace, understanding how to effectively communicate emotions by e-mail is crucial.”