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.”
- 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.