Take time to clear up email confusion

Rebecca Weitzel
Rebecca Weitzel

I love email. It’s convenient, efficient and often saves me from lengthy meetings. But my relationship with email also can be toxic at times.

When I’m particularly busy, the ping notifying me I’ve received a new message can trigger a surge in my pulse as I anticipate a problem or another demand on my time. It turns out many people experience this response. According to research at the Future Work Center in London, email constitutes one of the leading sources of stress in the workplace.

One reason email causes stress is because it frequently leads to miscommunication. I recently received an email from a colleague in response to my proposed action items on a project. Her message contained just one word: “OK.” I mentally retraced our previous communications to decipher her meaning. Was she saying, “Okey dokey, sounds great?” Did she mean, “Umm, this project is annoying and I can’t be bothered right now?” Or was her response simply a business-like confirmation?

I couldn’t be certain of her intent because my computer screen offered none of the context I needed to interpret her emotional state — no friendly smile or breezy vocal tone to suggest we were on the same page, no fingertips pressed to her temples or heavy sigh to suggest frustration and no quick nod to indicate agreement. I proceeded as though she’d smiled when she typed “OK,” but only time would tell if I guessed right.

According to research conducted by Kristen Byron at Syracuse University, every email conveys emotions to the receiver whether it’s intended or not. These emotions are often misinterpreted. Studies conducted by Justin Kruger at the New York University Stern School of Business demonstrate we accurately interpret the difference between seriousness and sarcasm in electronic communications only 50 percent of the time — no better than chance.

When we send emails, we tend to grossly overestimate the likelihood the receiver will accurately detect our tone. Since we know what’s in our own heads, we believe it’s obvious to others.

This means as email receivers, we often misinterpret the sender’s intent, but assume we’re right. As senders, we’re often sloppy, but assume we’re clear.

Byron’s research shows this losing combination of emotional inaccuracy can have such far-reaching implications in our workplaces as breakdowns in relationships between team members, poor decision-making, lower performance and increased conflict and anxiety. Over time, individual and organizational well-being suffer.

As email senders, we can do our part to prevent these breakdowns:

  • Byron’s research indicates email dulls emotion by at least one level. This means emails sent with a neutral tone will be perceived as negative. Emails sent with a positive tone will be perceived as neutral. Change the receiver’s emotional interpretation by including pleasant openings and closings. A simple “I hope this finds you well” or “thanks for all you do” go a long way toward ensuring tone is accurately perceived.
  • Avoid using ALL CAPS. It’s the equivalent of yelling.          
  • If you’re concerned about tone, have someone else read your email and provide feedback.
  • If you’re addressing a sensitive topic, skip email and meet over video conference or in person to the decrease the chance you’ll be misunderstood.
  • We also can reduce potential miscommunication as email receivers:
  • Remain aware of tendencies to apply stereotypes to fill in missing gaps in understanding. These mental shortcuts almost always lead us astray.           
  • Keep in check the left-over wiring from our caveman days that causes us to interpret ambiguous information as negative rather than positive. While this cognitive negativity bias once protected us from harm, it now leads to frequent misunderstanding.
  • Seek clarity. Reply with, “When you said … I interpreted that to mean … . Is that correct?”
  • Assume the best. Reread the email with a cheerful tone and test whether or not it could be interpreted in a more positive light.

The next time you’re tempted to respond to an email with just “OK,” consider taking two more seconds to add, “Looks great.” Simple acts of thoughtfulness add a little more humanity to our communications, reduce stress and transform relationships in the workplace and beyond.