Email With Care

As I was in the final throes of getting a book into print, a woman at my publisher sent me an email that stopped me in my tracks.

I had met her just once, at a meeting. We were having an email exchange about some crucial detail, which I thought was being worked out well. Then she wrote: “It’s difficult to have this conversation by email. I sound strident and you sound exasperated.”

I was shocked to hear that I sounded exasperated.

But once she had named this snag in our communications, I realized that, indeed, there was something really “off.”

So we had a phone call that cleared everything up in a few minutes, ending on a friendly note.

The advantage a phone call or drop-by has over email will no doubt be greatest when there is trouble at hand. But the ways in which email may subtly encourage such trouble in the first place are becoming more apparent with the emergence of a new discipline: social neuroscience, the scientific study of what goes on in the brains of people as they interact with each other. These new findings have surfaced a design flaw at the interface where the brain encounters a computer screen: there are no channels online for the signals the brain’s social circuitry depends on to calibrate emotions and how to respond to them.

Face-to-face interactions are information-rich; we pick up how to take what someone says to us not just from their tone of voice and facial expression, but also their body language, pacing, as well as their synchronization with what we do and say. Most crucially, our brain’s social circuitry mimics in our neurons what’s happening in the other person’s brain, keeping us on the same wavelength emotionally. This neural dance creates an instant rapport that arises from an enormous number of parallel information-processors, all working instantaneously and out of our awareness.

In contrast to a phone call or talking in person, email is emotionally lean-to-impoverished when it comes to sending the nonverbal messages that add nuance and valence to our words. The words we type come to the other person denuded of the rich emotional context we convey in person or over the phone.

Email, of course, has a multitude of virtues: it’s quick and convenient, democratizes access, lets us stay in touch with loads of people we could never see or call. We can get huge amounts of work done together.
Nonetheless, when it comes to relying solely on email for communications at work, that absence of a channel for the brain’s emotional circuitry carries risks. Reviewing studies on email in the workplace from the new field of cyberpsychology in an article to be published in the Academy of Management Review next year [Jan. 2008], Kristin Byron at Syracuse University’s business school finds that, in general, emailing ups the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication. One reason: we tend to misinterpret positive email messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended. Even jokes are rated as less funny by recipients than by senders.
We fail to realize this largely because of egocentricity, according to a 2005 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. While sitting alone in a cubicle or basement writing emails, the sender “hears” in his own mind emotional overtones in what he’s writing, though none of those cues will be received by the person getting the message.

When we talk, my brain’s social radar picks up immediately that hint of stridency in your voice and automatically lowers my own tone of exasperation, all in the service of working things out. But when we email, there’s little-to-nothing by way of emotional valence to pick up. Email lacks those channels for the implicit meta-messages that, in conversation, give what we say its positive or negative spin.

On the upside, familiarity between sender and receiver pretty much cancels out these problems, according to findings by Joseph Walther at Michigan State University. People who know each other well, it turns out, rarely have these misunderstandings online.

These quirks of cyberpsychology are familiar to Clay Shirky, who teaches in New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. His expertise is social computing – software programs where multiple users interact, ranging from The Sims and FaceBook to listserves and chat rooms, to email. I asked Shirky what all this might imply for the multitudes of people who routinely work with others virtually, by email.

“When you communicate with a group you only know through electronic channels, it’s like having functional Asperger’s Syndrome – you are very logical and rational, but emotionally brittle,” Shirky said.

“I’m part of a farflung distributed network that at one point was designing a piece of software for sharing medical data. We worked mostly by conference calls and email, and it was going nowhere,” Shirky added. “So we finally said we’d all fly to Boston and get together for two days, just sit in a room and hash it out.”

During that meeting the team got an enormous amount of work done. And, Shirky recalls, “because the synchronization by email was so much better after the face-to-face piece, we actually hit the launch date.”
Shirky proposes that work groups whose members are widely distributed but need to have high levels of coordination, such as the computer security team protecting a global bank, do not need to get everyone in one room to reap the same benefit. Instead he proposes a “banyan model,” after the Asian tree that puts down roots from its branches. In this approach, Shirky said, “You put down little roots of face-to-face contact everywhere, to strategically augment electronic communications.”

Shirky advised the IT head of a global bank to routinely gather together small groups with one representative from each center for a day or two to get to know each other and get some work done. That way, when the security group in Singapore gets an email from the security people in London, someone there will be more likely to know the person sending it, and sense how to read that information with a lessened risk of misconstruing the message – or, worse, discounting it because of the “not-invented-here” syndrome.

Consider, too, the email-the-guy-down-the-hall effect: as email use increases in an organization, the overall volume of all other kinds of communication drops – particularly those routine friendly greetings that make people feel connected. But lacking these seemingly innocuous interactions, a 1998 article in Organizational Science concluded, people feel more disconnected from those they work with. Saying “Hi,” it turns out, really does matter; it’s social glue.

As Shirky puts it, “Social software” such as email “is not better than face-to-face contact; it’s only better than nothing.”

Further Resources:

  • To hear Clay Shirky and Daniel Goleman in conversation about social computing: http://www.morethansound.net
  • Kristin Byron, “Carrying Too Heavy a Load? The Communication and Miscommunication of Emotion in Emails,” (forthcoming, January, 2008), Academy of Management Review.
  • M. Sarbaugh-Thompson and M.S. Feldman, “Electronic mail and organizational communication: Does saying “Hi” really Matter?” Organization Science, 9, 6, 1998. 685-698.
  • J. Kruger et al. “Egocentrism over e-mail: can we communicate as well as we think?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 2005. 925-936.

34 thoughts on “Email With Care

  1. Dear Daniel Goleman,

    I’m glad to land on your site, because I just read this piece in the _Times_ and wanted to respond.

    I very much enjoyed your article, but I feel that you omitted one very important — and frequently used — email tool that does, however feebly, approximate the “channels for the implicit meta-messages that, in conversation, give what we say its positive or negative spin”

    Emoticons.

    I must admit that, since I’ve been emailing on a regular basis well before the Internet existed (1982 to be precise) I found myself allergic to “smileys” when they first came on the scene; I thought them childish. But I’ve since come to believe that they are essential for good communication between strangers.

    A case in point: the translators’ Forum to which I belong, WordReference.com, encourages members to use emoticons, particularly as a way of softening a critique of someone’s use of language. The Forum moderators model this behavior in their own posts. In my opinion, these emoticons (made readily available by the forum software) help to keep the Forum running smoothly.

  2. hi,
    when we write we have to be slow. we have to weigh each word and see if it has any extra meaning other than what is intended. it becomes a big challenge to the writer.

    but in real life too we have the same problem. many or generally people do not hear the mild sarcasm, or slight changes in tone and misinterpret the meaning. close relatives imagine a lot of meaning from their perspective. they twist words and bring out a meaning that suits them.

    whether it is face to face conversation, or e mail or telephone conversation, messages rarely are understood in a scientific manner. it either made richer or poorer.

    sridevi.

  3. Thank you for formalizing what I was thinking about email communications for so long. I just left a work environment where email was the primary form of communication and it led to many unnecessary arguments and hurt feelings. I’m sending your post to my former boss, this might help heal that relationship.

  4. I’ve been a software architect and developer for over 35 years. I even wrote one of the earliest e-mail programs available to consumers before the Internet era. As a nerd inside and out, e-mail has been a fascinating way for me to communicate. Like right now, I can’t sleep and contacting you just makes sense.

    I can go through the history of email, moving from selectric typewriter, to thermal paper, to 1920 character screens, to Notes, to Outlook, to hotmail to MySpace. Furthermore, I don’t like phone calls. It is tough to communicate ideas on the phone, to make sure that they are understood.

    The best thing that has happened for the airlines is the Blackberry. The midsize company I work for has placed all of the junior executives on Blackberry’s. This act has destroyed my ability to communicate ideas and concepts effectively with email. Over the years, I have prided myself on writing emails that communicate new ideas — for example how to apply concepts from MySpace and Facebook in new product directions.

    But too often, these emails are not read, just scanned while the recipient is holding a Blackberry in a meeting. They are not read, not considered, and many readers see bits out of context and completely misunderstand what I am trying to accomplish. I’d pay thousands to be able to send emails that are marked so they cannot be read or deleted on a Blackberry. Blackberry email should be limited to those items which require action within hours. There is only one person in my company who glances at emails on the Blackberry and then rereads them in his office.

    Email was more effective when it was slowly poured onto thermal paper than it is today.

    Instead, I wander the halls looking for people, traveling much more to find more people in more hallways.

  5. Email, which is no different than any other form of
    writing, need not be emotionally enervating, else how
    could we be moved by a good novel? The medium is not
    the problem, rather it is lack of facility by
    individual writers.

  6. Thanks for the great column I just read on the NY Times online — Email is Easy to Write (and Misread). I plan to pass it along to friends and colleagues. I’ve bumped into these issues time and time again.

    I just wish I could pass on these comments to you face-to-face

  7. As a graduate student who has co-developed a course on computer- mediated communication, I greatly appreciated your NYT piece, “E-Mail
    Is Easy to Write (and to Misread).” You mentioned Joe Walther’s
    work; his theories of social information processing and hyperpersonal
    communication have had a tremendous impact on those of us doing
    research in this area.

    However, I was disappointed that you quoted Clay Shirky — a smart,
    provocative commentator, but not the careful empiricist that Walther
    is — saying that communicating online is like having Asperger’s
    Syndrome. Although the comparison is vivid, it is also disrespectful
    to people who actually have the disorder. (Others have talked about
    “autistic social software,” which is at least as bad.) Furthermore,
    it misleads; the constraints of communicating through a lean medium
    do not approach the effect of a serious mental illness. It brings to
    mind the schoolyard taunt, “You’re retarded.” It’s offensive when
    kids say it, and it’s offensive when grown-ups use it glibly to
    describe social phenomena that, as you know from work by Walther and
    others, we have plenty of more precise and appropriate ways to express.

  8. Fascinating commentary, Mr. Goleman. For years now, I’ve been generously scattering ellipses in place of many of the periods in my e-mails, and not only those addressed to friends. The serial dot is especially helpful when writing to colleagues who might be put off by the medium’s innate tendency to make communications appear brusque, curt, cold, snappish, etc. I’ve found that ellipses soften even the shortest of sentences…
    (See?)

  9. I read with interest your October 7 article on the social cues we depend on to be understood face to face, but when lacking often cause our emails to fall short. I am surprised that you as a writer propose that the written word is “emotionally impoverished” and “[lacks] a channel for the brain’s emotional circuitry.” Pick any novelist, any poet, or (nearly) any columnist, and I wager he would disagree. Email is no different from any other written communication: it can be nuanced, sophisticated, and powerful – or not. The problem with email is not that it is incapable as a medium for transmitting full-bandwidth communication; rather the issue is that most people are not good writers, nor are they good readers. That it is quick and utilitarian perhaps encourages the mis-writing and misreading of emails – not to mention the egocentricity you noted – but the effects of how email is commonly used should not be confused as fundamental deficiencies of email as a mode of communication. I would suggest that if email writers took a couple extra minutes to think about what they are typing, and recipients took a couple extra minutes to think about what they are reading, most misunderstandings would be avoided completely. Because it is so fast, the urge is to email like one speaks, which leads to the problems you wrote about. All that is needed to correct those problems is to realize that email is not written communication, and to write and read accordingly.

  10. What is striking to me about the many articles along this same line over
    the past decade or so is the implicit perspective that the emergence of
    e-mail was also the emergence of written language.

    What I mean is: The whole discussion seems to be focused on the dimensions
    written language lacks that phone conversations, video conferences, and/or
    face-to-face meetings have.

    But that’s not an email-specific analysis. Before the advent of
    telephones–and even much more recently, before the breakup of Ma Bell led
    to affordable long-distance telephony–people routinely kept in touch by
    writing letters to each others. Love letters, hate letters, condolence
    letters… letters of the highest sensitivity demanding eloquence in
    communicating emotion.

    I certainly don’t recall a similar literature during the Age of Letters
    decrying the frustration of emotional communication via written language.

    If I’m correct that there weren’t similar problems with letters, then an
    explanation of the phenomenon you describe must go beyond the distinction
    between written vis-a-vis audio/visual communication.

  11. The problem that written communications, particularly those between strangers, are liable to be misconstrued as more hostile than intended is not new. However, by the time people took to e-mail, a generation had passed since they regularly corresponded in writing. Forms of written address and expression which now seem meaningless, merely archaic and quaint, in fact served a purpose. “Yours very truly,” “ever your obedient servant, ” “please accept the sincere expression of my earnest sentiments,” etc., presented an affect of cordial or at least considerate formality — business-ese, if you will — and would put the reader in the same frame of mind. This, despite, or even because of, the correspondents’ understanding that the phrases were stock. (I know there is a new e-mail etiquette book out — maybe the authors mention old-fashioned protocol. Your research helps explain why it worked, beyond encoding social class.)

    During informal e-mail, particularly with subordinates, emoticons and exclamation points can serve as bearers of enthusiastic, supportive, friendly affect. To convey affable formality, though, is hard nowadays. Careful composition can help, but that takes time — the one thing e-mail is supposed to save! I have followed the lead of a distinguished defense attorney I know — an expert at inserting his sunny personality between his client and a jury, a master of social intelligence — and I now employ smileys and exclamation points with liberality in almost every context. Hasn’t hurt yet! (Does it seem insincere? Does that matter?) Best wishes for success with your book!

  12. I agree with most of your argument; however, there can be pitfalls in generalizing on the relative advantages of face-to-face vs. internet communication. How many meetings have we all attended, for example, which have been little more than a waste of time? How often does personal interaction, though “richer”, lead to negative consequences? Cannot a face-to-face meeting lead often to “selling” someone on an idea whose merits are few?

    Studies have shown that children with learning problems can benefit from more machine interaction than classroom.

    Is this e-mail message poorer, neurally and otherwise, than a personal meeting? Perhaps, but your article is essentially a form of machine communication sent to a mass media audience who cannot otherwise be reached.

    A few years ago, a futurist said that high-tech would lead to high-touch, which your article advocates.

  13. Your article about email makes some good points about
    the negatives of email relative to telephonic and
    face-to-face oral communications. You also list some
    positives of eamil. You miss, I think, a big one, at
    least for me, though, to wit that the process of
    composing and editing an email typically improves the
    accuracy and specificity of my message. Without
    discounting the advantages of oral communications, it
    seems to me there is a place for writing – via email
    or otherwise – when the right choice of words is
    crucial to getting the intended message across.

    Cheerio.

  14. First, I’m delighted to know that you are exploring this issue. Who knows how much miscommunication has occured via e-mail?! If Chinese restaurants suddenly offered “misfortune” cookies, that topic would have been front & center, post-haste!
    But we faithfully entrust the conveyance of our sentiments, our state of heart & mind, even our professional reputations and careers to the characters pounded out on a keyboard, launched into cyberspace by a click of the “send” button.
    The importance of non-verbal communication in human interaction is even greater than verbal, as studies have shown.
    Ironically, the next wave of electronic communication – high definition videoconferencing – actually might remedy the failings of e-mail. It allows the subtleties of human interaction (the raised eyebrow, a nod, a frown, a smile) to present themselves naturally, and clearly, as though through a pane of glass, despite the distance between parties on a video call.
    Unlike prior iterations of videoconferencing, (grainy images, frustrating glitches, hard to use) HD VC is clear video, crisp, real-time audio, & user-friendly.
    Best of all, this technology is available today, needing only 1 mb of bandwidth to achieve real time HD video & audio. And it’s relatively affordable to most geographically disbersed organizations.
    Video now represents most of the packets traveling across the internet, though most is one-way, streamed traffic, a-la YouTube & the like. It stands to reason that interactive HD video communication is in our collective future.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking posts!
    Feel free to contact me if you’d like to experience this technology.
    Bob

  15. One additional problem with e-mail communication is time, that being the time a sender awaits a receivers response. While many recipients respond immediately (or within an acceptable amount of time) to email, many do not. While reasons for not responding are both acceptable and diverse, the sender may interpret the delay as disinterest, indifference or even a personal affront. More often than not, such is not the case.

    The problem may be that the world of email is isolated, devoid of human interaction and consequently open to assumption and misunderstanding.

  16. Thank you for writing an article on the problems of communicating emotions
    through email. 🙂 . Body language has been said to be most of the message.
    😉 .

    However, I have issue with this paragraph:

    “In contrast to a phone call or talking in person, e-mail can be emotionally
    impoverished when it comes to nonverbal messages that add nuance and valence to
    our words. The typed words are denuded of the rich emotional context we convey
    in person or over the phone.”

    While the word *can* is appropriate, there is a whole new language out there
    specifically designed for informal, emotionally-laden text (8-O).

    I have not read your book. 🙁 . I hope you have a section on smiley faces! And
    exclamation marks.

  17. I enjoyed reading your article on e-mail communication in the New York Times. E-mail is certainly convenient but is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. My experience in reading messages is that people don’t always express what they’re thinking or feeling clearly on the first pass. Writing is always better with review and revision. People don’t generally give e-mail a second thought, especially in business settings where time is limited.
    Have you done any research into online chatting? Some programs give one the opportunity to add icons alongside text to express emotion. I’m starting to prefer using google chat to e-mail when communicating with my friend and his wife who are teaching in Vietnam. It gives us a chance to have a ‘conversation’ of a few exchanges–something we just haven’t been able to do in person since they started their adventure.
    Thank you for wriiting such an interesting article. I’ll check out your book next time I get to the bookstore.

  18. Mr. Goleman, Daniel, hey, hi there…in the main you’re right; I look on it, e-mail, as evolution where soon in a science fiction-type finale we’ll be controlled by what we claim to control. If you’re in control of it, it’s in control of you.

    The webcam sets the nuance and the body language and facial expressions in a new light since the broadcaster gets to rattle on without interruption, can yell or whisper without being told to shut up or speak up, can edit etcetera – but still the missing link is actual contact…like I pretty much live on the net, 12 hour days is a conservative estimate…seeking purpose in a purposeless universe.

    It’s a complex world and we just have to try to keep up…

  19. I enjoyed your article about the difficulty of maintaining business relationships via email and thought you’d be interested in my situation. I am leading a start up with Korean company as a business partner. They are doing the engineering, my company is doing the market development. They have one manager in the US on the west coast (I’m in Cambridge MA). When we started the company, I spent a lot of time building the relationship with the US based manager by visiting with him and going to trade shows. I also traveled to Korea and met the in country managers. Building the relationship like this is very important for Koreans; as you probably know it is common for Korean managers to go out as a group for dinner and drinking 3-4 nights per week to build rapport and teamwork among colleagues.

    Regrettably, because of errors in visa processing, the manager I built the relationship with had to leave and a new manager came out from Korea. My company was in the beginning of market development, things were very busy and I could not travel out to spend time with him. On top of that, the market development was slower than predicted. The new manager did not know me very well, wasn’t familiar with the US and hadn’t worked with any Americans closely before – naturally he wasn’t sure if it was me or the category or the product that was the problem. But, his continued support for the project was critical for my fledgling company’s success. What to do?

    The answer was webcams. We had already adopted using Skype for calling each other. I sent Jae a webcam, and hooked one to my computer. It eased the relationship greatly. Now all the managers in Korea have them too and we all speak using our webcams. You can see each other in their offices, and you get a real sense of being there. The phone calls take longer, are more relaxed, allow for broader discussion and importantly, make everyone feel more connected.

  20. Good point. Email does limit the connection between two individuals. However, when I think about it… What if you are actually agitated with the person you are communicating with? Unfortunately, you are not in the position to express dissent or any kind of negative emotion. Wouldn’t email help in concealing those emotions and allow you to just get the whole thing over and done with? It sounds pretentious, I know. But sometimes, email helps me control myself.

  21. Let me be concise. I am /so/ disappointed with the implicit hypothesis that you express in The New York Times nytimes.com October 7, 2007 article. Of this hypothesis, which I’ll term “pseudo-scientific notation,” though my earthly father, “who art [now] in heaven,” might more aptly term “psychological bullshit”—, I am decidedly of the opinion that, although factually accurate, where concerning the inherent power of interpretation attributable to “face to face interaction” and the obvious lack of inherent power of interpretation, absent such interaction, that such associations are not correlative as the article tacitly suggests, but rather a mere observation of fact. I believe, in offering this hypothesis as an explanation for the ambiguities and misconceptions associated with the many erroneous perceptions derived from e-mail communications with regards to the intent of the authors, that you miss the central issue or problem and blame the result.

    A better explanation or hypothesis for the e-mail miscommunications phenomenon, or the issue central of your text, more aptly stated would that e-mail technology is neither the cause nor the great facilitator of the underlying evil addressed here, but instead an apparent systemic erosive declination in the understanding and proper exercise of certain social skills, writing and reading in particular, and the mollycoddling of an excuse-laden culture raised on contempt for such civil tennents as: culpability, responsibility, duty of care, and accountability, compounded by an ever-increasing predisposition for indolence.

    Bottom line: Neither e-mail nor the lack of physical cues are to blame for poor communication. A well written novel communicates quite effectively and most of their authors are /dead/.

  22. Hello,

    I am writing in response to your recent article about email communication, largely because I came away feeling that an old, familiar issue was being trotted out as news. Following is a quote from it:

    “We fail to realize this largely because of egocentricity, according to a 2005 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Sitting alone in a cubicle or basement writing e-mail, the sender internally “hears” emotional overtones, though none of these cues will be sensed by the recipient.

    This might be describing anyone writing to another, by any means or method. In the days before email, or even electronic/telephonic communication, “long distance” exchanges, business or otherwise, were written, with pen and paper. Why is email any different? Because it is faster? I think the real issue is in the ability of the communicator to strike the right tone with his audience, whether it is a colleague he/she has never met, or a group of familiar co-workers. The difference is in the writer’s sense of his or her audience, and in their ability to write effectively for that audience, i.e. their ability to convey, appropriately those “emotional overtones.” It is a writing skill, which for the most part can be learned, and maybe should be offered alongside other training courses at corporations that depend on email for vital communications (who doesn’t these days?).

    The publisher with whom you had an unfortunate exchange seems to have chosen inappropriate descriptive language. For someone in the business of making books, she showed a surprising lack of facility with words, and above all, diplomacy, with an author. Her adjectives seemed harsh and her conclusions about you presumptuous under the circumstances, given how quickly you were able to resolve the misunderstanding over the phone.

    A joke might seem slightly less funny on the screen, a neutral statement might be viewed as slightly negative. Again, why is this an email phenomenon, and not just a symptom of someone’s bad writing, whether in pen and ink, or cyberspace? A good writer–and I am by no means claiming to be one–will know how compensate in words, what is lacking.

    I imagine once the telephone came into widespread use, there was a corresponding drop off in letter writing, from which it has never recovered–until email “letters” came to be. So now we are writing to each other more than ever, but because we as a culture have been so out of letter-writing practice, all manner of miscues and misunderstandings are taking place.

    The tone of the article seems to imply that miscommunication by email is news, because it is attached to a relatively new medium. I don’t think it’s all that exciting. Brushing up on letter-writing skills and etiquette would go a long way toward addressing these “new” email issues.

    Thanks for the thought provoking article, and providing a way to respond to it. But I wonder if you will receive this email letter, or will it be screened by an underling, then diverted to the correct file (round or otherwise)?

  23. I have just finished reading your recent New York
    Times article entitled ‘E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and
    to Misread)’ published October 7th. I agree
    wholeheartedly that the phenomena of e-mail writing
    lacks some of the emotive content that has become seen
    as essential to effective communication. But it struck
    me that the advent of e-mail is not necessarily the
    source of this paradigm shift – don’t we encounter the
    same problem with written correspondence? And
    arguably, huge amounts of written correspondence were
    the only way that many people ever communicated for
    centuries before the advent of telephones and cheap
    travel. I was curious if you had given this aspect of
    the issue any thought. My own preliminary thought is
    that perhaps written correspondence is not subject to
    the problem of e-mail for two reasons. First, mail is
    slow enough that careful deliberation and more emotive
    language is used simply because each letter has a
    higher ‘cost of delivery’ so people made sure that the
    letter was worth sending. The second is that
    handwriting itself possess an emotive capacity that
    simply tying cannot capture. Perhaps subtle changes in
    handwriting cue the reader to emotive changes, and
    these simply cannot be reproduced on the keyboard. I’d
    be interested to hear what your thought are.

  24. I’m always puzzled when I read or hear about the problem with “tone” in e-mail. Haven’t any of these commentators communicated by mail? Why is e-mail always compared to face-to-face interaction rather than letter-writing? E-mail isn’t called e-chat.

  25. I loved the article! *0* It was so helpful to receive information that explained both rationally and persuasively why the email world is a treacherous one in which to live — and why we need to tread its digital turf carefully if we are to obtain more benefit than cost in using it. ^__^! That’s one reason why I think it’s time for adults to ‘mainstream’ the use of emoticons that can provide us a rather significant substitute for facial expression, tone, body language, and the like. It took a while for me to begin using emoticons, but I learned from receiving emails from the younger generation that uses (a fairly broad and sophisticated array of) emoticons that their communications tend to be much clearer than my own. With the use of emoticons, I now live in the email world both with far greater care and with far less danger and anxiety. 🙂

  26. Mr. Shirky and Mr. Goleman:

    While I would agree that for some, if not many, email misunderstandings are like functional Asperger’s. I would also point out that this is an excellent example of how a person with Asperger’s is challenged on a daily basis in almost every human interaction. This could be very instructive in teaching people about Asperger’s and compassion; however, characterizing an Aspie as emotionally brittle is not only inaccurate, it is cruel and misleads the public. It is irresponsible reporting to go beyond simply making the correlation, and to aid in the casting pejorative and harmful characterizations. This level of irresponsibility and ignorance is truly disappointing.

    In case a writer from the Times, and a prof at NYU need assistance, according to the American Oxford Dictionary:

    brittle
    adjective
    hard but liable to break or shatter easily : /her bones became fragile and brittle.
    /• (of a sound, esp. a person’s voice) unpleasantly hard and sharp and showing signs of instability or nervousness : /a brittle laugh.
    /• (of a person or behavior) appearing aggressive or hard but unstable or nervous within : /her manner was artificially bright and brittle.

    I don’t know what Mr. Shirky’s credentials are to make any qualifying statements about Asperger’s but unless he/you has something upon which to rely, perhaps he/you shouldn’t cast ASPERsions at those with Asperger’s. Aspies aren’t actually brittle; they feel and they don’t break easily. As a matter of fact, it is very difficult to break an Aspie, because they are neurologically incapable of receiving the message that you are trying to break them. The usually feel it only after the 18 ton truck has over run them, having received absolutely no clue it is coming. They aren’t unstable; they don’t usually share their feelings and control them tightly, since interacting with “normal” people has taught them interaction equals rejection. Your brittle comment is just a simple example.

    Aspies are not emotionally aggressive; they cannot force their feeling upon someone else, and they are unable from a neurological standpoint to play power games or emotional games. They are missing that particular wiring “gift” that makes normal people so “normal.”

    From the NYT:

    These quirks of cyberpsychology are familiar to Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in New York University ’s interactive telecommunications program. His expertise is social computing — software programs through which multiple users interact, ranging from Facebook to Listservs and chat rooms to e-mail. I asked Professor Shirky what all of this might imply for the multitudes of people who work with others by e-mail.

    “When you communicate with a group you only know through electronic channels, it’s like having functional Asperger’s Syndrome — you are very logical and rational, but emotionally brittle,” Professor Shirky said.

    The quote should have stopped at rational. And could have merely be finished with, but readers miss the emotional cues because they are operating in an emotional vacuum. That would have been responsible reporting, accurate, well informed, and served the same purpose. I never expected the Times to foster ignorance. Shame on the Times! And shame on Mr. Shirky who clearly doesn’t know whence he speaks.

  27. In your article “E-mail is Easy to Write (and to Misread)”, published on Oct. 7th, you mention that people have a tendency to interpret positive messages as more neutral and neutral messages as more negative. I’m a student at Cornell University working on research about if and how emotion is conveyed through a text-based environment and I am wondering if I could get the source for your information about people’s interpretation of messages because it’s definitely something I would like to read.

  28. e-mail….Lately I have been busy and not able to get to all those emails that magicly apear in my INbox..Later only to find out I have disapointed someone by not responding..I would have evently but there is this feeling that when the message has been sent the recipient has read it…Email is a wonderful thing but sometine you just have to reach out and touch someone “pun intended”

  29. A hearty Amen to all the commenters who pointed out the importance of letters, literature, and the long history of the written word. What mystifies me, Dr. Goleman, is why this important point has escaped you until now.

    How could you have forgotten the letter? That was what I asked you by letter last month. Whether or not you got that letter, I’ll quote from it in this comment.

    Is e-mail written in solitude? So are letters. Does e-mail lack paralanguage? So do letters. Even if they are seldom written today, particularly at work, one cannot understand e-mail without knowing how it compares with both speech and other forms of writing.

    Those of us born in the 40’s and 50’s are old enough to remember letters. I was a frequent letter writer throughout the 70’s and 80’s. I’ve had friendly correspondences with people I never or scarcely knew in person. I wrote in longhand because I was a bad typist, but the letters I received were usually typed. They were emotionally warm nonetheless.

    Readers of this blog might like to check out “Flame First, Think Later,” which appeared in the New York Times this February. But if all written communication were as volatile as e-mail, why would letters and correspondences be so treasured over generations and centuries? Why would they not have degenerated into flamefests, instead of carrying the warmth and wit and subtlety that they so often do?

    But, Dr. Goleman, here is my biggest question: You and others have written as though humanity went straight from face-to-face speech to the telephone, with nothing in between. That is like supposing that before the railroads were built, people did nothing but walk. Why have educated people, who supposedly have a sense of history, forgotten about the letter? What accounts for this Svengali-like influence of electronic things?

  30. I want to thank Daniel Goleman and all who have commented here for insights into a gnarly communication problem.

    Emoticons are better than nothing, perhaps, but I don’t find them very useful. They express only the emotions we are fully aware of and want to signal. In personal communication, the subtle shifts in facial expressions, changes in pace of speech, and other subtle cues can let me know when my communication is veering off course, even before the discomfort rises to the level of conscious emotion in the listener. I can slow down, ask a question, smile, or respond in some way to those subtle cues, and my conversation partner doesn’t ever have to resort to the list of twenty-seven officially expressible emotions.

    For communication across vast distances, lacking Skype, I am about to switch to handwritten letters. There is a little bit of paralanguage there, from the paper to the pressure of the pen and the subtle variations in size and angle. And there is the tradition of cordiality in the formal openings and closings.

  31. I actually enjoy extracting meanings in words. like letters really. think of times when all people had to communicate was via letters. the only difference now is that we can trigger them back and forth so much more quickly. Imagine having to wait months for a reply regarding the the addressee’s letter that you just didn’t understand. It at least keeps the conversation going.

  32. This is a really fascinating article, among many here at this wonderful website, which I just found today. I love the world library of information, music, and literature of all kinds that is accessible to me “at my fingertips” through the Internet and the World Wide Web and the powerful, affordable tools of email and instant messaging that allow me to stay in touch with friends all over. That being said, along with many other thought-provoking comments, I agree with the readers who mentioned dead novel writers and letter writing and the similarities between and the potentials of email and good old-fashioned letters.
    I agree with the writers who mention two possible contributing elements to the lack of understanding of each other’s emails and the “flaming”: the writer’s skill with the written word (or lack thereof) and the increased inability of people to accept responsibility for their actions, in an email, in a memo, or in person. Friends my age (born at the end of the 50’s) notice this apparent inability of people, often younger than us (but not always) to ever own up to just making a mistake, and then apologizing, never mind doing something to fix the mistake, in many areas of life, especially in the neighborhood we live in.
    So while I find it regrettable, perhaps I should not be surprised at this kind of irresponsible behavior on the Internet, where it shows up in forums, blogs and everywhere in email.
    I went to Catholic school, and while this was not a total advantage in my general educational background, I did learn to spell and use grammar. I may not always do so perfectly, I can get careless too, but I am always called upon to proofread everyone else’s work wherever I have worked at a job that required any written communications and friends ask me to do this for them all the time as well. Administrators everywhere I’ve ever worked praise all my writing, including my emails, which I find strange, until I consider what they have to compare it with. Spelling is like math, for some folks, either they are good at it or not, and I admit, math is not my strong suit. So I double-check my computations with a person who is more comfortable with numbers or at least with the use of both paper and pencil and a calculator. Grammar can be memorized and used or a book referred to, to check what you are doing…which is what I do when I need a mathematical formula I don’t remember – I look it up – on the Internet!
    However, I find that in recent years written language is something that has just deteriorated and that this is accepted as the norm in most workplaces (including the biggest office in the state in a state government job I did for the last two years until four months ago) and sadly, schools. At my last job, it was just assumed that this terrible writing (admittedly terrible! complained about as being terrible!) would have to be accepted, They felt that there’s little help for it, and no time for administrators (some of whom wrote even more badly) to teach people with four year degrees and in some cases, Master’s degrees, how to write effectively, never mind grammatically, or to use Spell Check (which does not catch everything, as we know). I found information that was handed to the courts from our office embarrassingly poorly written and spelled and spent much time fixing other people’s work when a file was turned over to me with one of these awful reports in it, I could not just turn this in with my name on it, and would not do so. I was criticized by administration for doing this, frequently, as a waste of time. Oh, they said my written reports were very good…the attorney representing the state would say this each time (in a very surprised tone of voice, too) but it was not “enough” for them. The head administrator told me that it was not valued in my job description to be a good writer, and that she had a new initiative of her own, to start to do “something” to begin to change that in our location. We had that conversation shortly before they decided to terminate me, despite my completion of a “work plan” they proposed.
    In support of the people who wrote to say that people are irresponsible and that’s a big part of the problem, I must say that I observed a gross example of this phenomenon at this job (I had burnout, they terminated my employment and despite continuing unemployed other than part-time after four months, I am still grateful, every day, not to be in that toxic environment anymore) and that this incident reinforced what I had brought to management’s attention many times – an increasing atmosphere of a total lack of respect, never mind caring or anything remotely approaching professional behavior office-wide, between all levels of workers in the largest office in that state, of this state organization.
    What happened is this: a supervisor of supervisors and regular workers sent an email e vehemently accusing another same-level supervisor of arranging a meeting specifically with the intention of excluding her from attending, due to the date/day it was scheduled – only she sent it to the entire office, not just to the other supervisor who scheduled the departmental meeting. This complaint, in an environment where there are many many days (esp. Fridays, and then Mondays) when you cannot find more than one overwhelmed supervisor in the whole building, when something must be signed off on to make it take effect, even in emergency situations, I found laughable, (as in, she’s surprised that a meeting was being held when she, a supervisor, would be out? ask a regular worker about supervisors being out of the office, for a little reality check!) but I was also shocked that it was sent out to the entire office, as this upper level administrator was known for being “computer savvy”. I was left with one of two assumptions. Either she reacted in an email angrily, first, then hit send, and then realized she had not checked where she sent the email to, as in which mailing list because she was that out-of-control angry when she wrote it. Or, she intended the whole office to become party to this confrontation between two same-level adminstrators. Perhaps because she was taking on, maybe even deliberately challenging, the “untouchable” status of someone with much more seniority in the organization as well as much more seniority at this location than she had (I wasn’t alone in my shock, there were heavy predictions that the “flamer” would be backing down very soon or losing her job or suddenly transferring out) and maybe she wanted all these “innocent bystanders” in case anyone tried any retaliatory gestures. The jury was out, no one was sure, according to the “buzz”. I’m not a big one for office gossip but people were expressing their opinion on this in cubicles next to my own, rather explicitly and it was impossible to miss the conversations, especially since discretion is frequently not the way things are done or discussed in that office.
    What happened next was even, to my way of thinking, both funnier and sadder and ultimately, scary. The supervisor who sent out the “flaming” email directed at the other supervisor, immediately sent out another email to the whole office, instructing everyone (including, presumably, the head of the entire office? her superior as well) to not construe anything based on the previous email and not to discuss it or its content. Sad attempt at damage control, if that was what was even intended, in a manner and tone even more arrogant and high-handed than the initial email. She made a spectacle of herself and other administration and then told the rest of the staff not to talk about it. Like she could control the thoughts and feelings of everyone in the office. I’d noticed this kind of high-handed thinking in many behaviors around this organization, but even so, I was shocked at how far things had gone. It also counts as the second-stupidest and ill-advised email I’ve ever read. The “flamer” also never apologized for involving everyone in her ridiculous, unnecessary and unprofessional little small-minded office feud. No responsibility taken, none whatsoever. She has a Master’s degree and double-digit years in her field and in this organization and is a single parent. As I said, scary and bordering on delusional behavior.
    Her “flaming” email was ill-advised and rude and unnecessary to begin with, she and the administrator she targeted are literally located just feet apart and could have sorted this out in 10 seconds face to face by her walking over to the other supervisor’s office and asking to be included in the meeting or for an accomodation in scheduling the meeting to be made, a change, so that she could attend also, and she could have used her skills to explain why that was important to the general functioning of her position and the entire office (these are supervising Social workers! with Masters Degrees! please!) but instead she wrote that foolish email, then, she hit Send.
    I wasn’t sure what to think of her and whether I trusted her to be a competent leader for me individually, prior to this incident. This action, along with others that she took with me and my situations professionally, sealed my judgment that she was indeed, incompetent. Actually, it was the second email telling everyone else what to think and talk about and what not to think, that really made up my mind on this score.
    I remember letters, I wrote a lot of them. I wrote to my friends and relatives while I was in college and until my friend who moved to AZ and then MT learned how to use a computer and email, her letters were treasures I looked forward to, and that I still miss, although her emails are very good, also. She loves email now, and has learned to use computers competently despite swearing she would never do so (I tutored her, by email! neither of us could afford the phone calls…so I have great fondness for email and instant messaging, too). Her only complaint is when too many of us only forward cute emails and jokes and don’t actually write email messages with personal content. She still looks for the personal content, like letter writing and supplies it quite well in her emails.
    As with any writing, the writer is supposed to take their audience into account and use proofreading before sending. That is why email programs have these amazing modern features (which us dinosaurs who didn’t grow up with a mouse in our hands learned to use, and so, others could too!) called “Drafts” and “Spell Check”.
    They do not do trainings on appropriate email use and writing in places that send out a lot of email every single day (there were few days when you weren’t dealing with upwards of 30 or more emails from every level of the organization there, and from people who didn’t know you and who were disseminating information to people who didn’t need it at all – these were State-level administrators sending this stuff, which was essentially spam) but they have and require trainings on all sorts of information that they never ask you to use again. It’s ludicrous.
    On the other hand, I am sure it was another symptom of a system-wide, state-wide failure that is and was bad and is getting worse and was reflected in many areas and in all forms of communication at this particular organization. Or perhaps it is a societal symptom that we now accept what was considered unacceptable behavior, once.
    Staff meetings were taking upwards of three plus hours each month and several unprofessional outbursts between supervisory staff and worker staff or other supervisors from different departments occurred at these meetings the last year I was still there, so “face to face” was not working well, either.
    My other point here is that communication breakdowns seem to be across the board, and to indicate something more pervasive than a mere impersonality of medium used.
    These were not minor disagreements, these were shouting matches in front of all of our colleagues, as attendance at these monthly staff meetings was mandatory. One such public verbal argument, complete with one person leaping to their feet and shouting at the other person, resulted in that staff member leaving the room in a rush and in tears, not to return for the entire balance of the meeting. The other memorable occurrence was a bitter, backbiting debate in front of guest speakers, interrupting the guest’s presentation and persisting in a completely stubborn and childish way for long minutes before the head administrator stopped it as politely as she could. I was embarrassed for all of us.
    I think the problem isn’t the impersonality of email as a medium, I believe it’s the choices made in today’s “culture” (using that term loosely!) to be rude, impersonal, unprofessional and to not use any thought or restraint in communications. I believe that until we demand the standards of other times and impose sanctions on people who won’t keep to those standards, it will continue.
    There have always been anonymous forums available, where some people try to take advantage and are abusive and inconsiderate and downright stupid (or exhibiting low social/emotional IQ, if you like that better) in their communications.
    The Internet is a bigger and perhaps more accessible forum and it’s a bigger world out there today, and there are perhaps more people in it who don’t know any better and don’t care to learn.
    Irresponsibility, whether for choosing to use Spell Check, or for choosing to save a message in Drafts and asking a professional colleague to proof it for tone and grammar and content as well as for the impact of what you are writing, is a choice. Choosing to allow yourself to “sleep on it” when writing (drafting!) a message, an email, or a memo, and to reconsider it, maybe more especially if it is personal, not office, email, are tools that are available to everyone and not using them is a choice, too. Cordial and formal or business openings and closings are not “against the rules” in email and I use them when writing an email cover letter to accompany my emailed resume and in other emails as well. It’s a choice. Some of my comment here is sarcastic in tone, and that was also my choice.
    When we blame a marvelous, powerful, accessible technology (that was not available to me throughout four years of college, an electronic typewriter was it, back then) for the user’s personal choices to not learn how to use it appropriately and for not accepting responsibility in our communications, we’ve reached the height of irresponsible attitudes in living and need to take another look at ourselves and how we use these helpful tools.

  33. Thank you Daniel for sharing your insights, very inspiring.

    I’ve spoken about a similar topic at my university; your website is full of incredible knowledge, this really is a truly fascinating article.

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