Ever try to communicate sarcasm, friendship or affection via e-mail? How about being corrected for misbehavior by a supervisor via an e-mail exchange? The problem is that e-mail is a poor communications tool that lacks the subtlety and formality of face-to-face communication. Without proper tone or the nuances of body language, sometimes there is a gap in communication. A recent study summarized in this article: http://www.openforum.com/idea-hub/topics/managing/article/communication-mistakes-every-office-makes-alana-horowitz explains some of the inherent problems with the misuse of e-mail. Afterall, it’s difficult to listen to someone via e-mail. What do you think?


26 thoughts on “Emotional Vacancy–and other problems with e-mail

  1. Communication through email, or any other text based service such as message boards online can be tricky for the reasons listed above, especially when it is between two or more people that don’t know each other very well. Without knowing someones personal speaking style and writing style, sense of humor, and personality in general, a simple comment between people can be emotionally misinterpreted as either more positive or negative then it should be (usually more negative.)
    Email, or even text messages, is a poor vehicle to convey sarcasm, and as a sarcastic individual myself I have had people miss my points completely because I was trying to be funny through an email or text.
    As far as the workplace goes, in my experience face to face communication or phone conversations with superiors and co-workers trumps email by far. While it is more convenient to send someone an email, the urgency or important of that message is not always conveyed, and an important message may be disregarded because it was emailed instead of verbally communicated.

  2. We sometimes have to wait for the response from a person we contact; for instance, when doing a group project, and we need to wait for the reply for so long(my personal experience). It also causes the lengthy during the communication process. It’s not fun to check an e-mail every 5 minute without getting any responses. Besides, if we convey via the e-mail, we would lose a facial expression, which is a very necessary aspect for personal speaking.
    Not only communication through e-mail is not an effective method, it sometimes makes us worried caused by the words. The conversation would become meaningless, and we can easily misinterpret the understanding between a sender and a receiver. I try to avoid using e-mail, when I have to send the urgent message or some important contents that need to be answered accurately.
    I just recently had an issue using text message to communicate with my friend, we talked about finding a ride for the trip, and I thought my friend knew the name whom we were talking about, and I did mention the name of that person. At the end of our conversation, he eventually asked me that “Are we talking about that person?” I said, YES!. As a the result, I spent like 5 text messages to make my friend clearly understand.

  3. E-mails can cause numerous problems. Writing anything that is not said through voice or face to face communication leaves out crucial non verbal signals that people read into. I am not the biggest fan of e-mails or any other written communication I feel that it lacks warmth and for many things takes much longer that if you just walked down the hall or called the person. We have become a society that is so involved with technology that we have actually forgotten what it is like to speak to people.
    When writing there are rules that must be remembered. Those rules were listed in the article. We need to teach ourselves these rules of writing or go back to the way things were before the Internet was born. By being more concise with our communications we can accomplish so much more.

  4. I try to avoid having discussions through email whenever I can, especially during the early stages of group work. It’s usually during these times were a large number of ideas need to be generated and rejected to form the basis of the group project, email as a medium for this is very inefficient. When you factor in how hard it is to disagree with a person in a polite way over email it becomes especially apparent how important non verbal communication is. My general rule of thumb is that whenever I don’t know exactly what I should say, a face to face meeting should be arranged if possible.

  5. The article suggested that 50% of all online communication is misinterpreted. E-mails lacks non verbal communication which is needed for communicating things such as sarcasm. There is a gap of communication and this is non-verbal, however I believe that this non-verbal communication is not necessary for most events. Sarcasm as a rule should never be put into text. Sarcasm is not needed in the work place and should not exist. I disagree with the 50% of all online communication is misinterpreted and think that is just an exaggeration. The message can be communicated properly online if it is written correctly and that is not the mediums fault, but the users. The only thing that online communication shouldn’t be used for is in the hiring and firing process of employees. These matters require the face-to-face communication.

  6. I agree a lot with Brent; I think the article exaggerates that 50% of all communication through email is misinterpreted. I do agree that some content is not designed for emails, like hiring, firing, or emotional content. Email is designed to be simple, direct, and is used as a tool of conveying exact information or requesting information. There are some topics of conversation should not be shared through email but we all have misplaced judgement sometimes and send off the email that we all know we shouldn’t. Too bad there isn’t an “un-send” button built into email.

  7. According to the article, “messages tend to be interpreted as less positive than intended.” This is very true becuase it is very difficult for you to express somthing positive or happiness to other person by mail, especially on a formal mail. For an example: “Could you do this again?”, If I don’t put any symbol on it such as “^^”, “:)” etc, “Could you do this again” will give the person who receive it a feeling about not asking him/her to do again, is ordering him/her to do it again. Therefore, e-mail only a tools to help you communicate fast and easy, not help you communicate well.

  8. Oh the mailing of the E. Did you know that there are people that still send postcards? I have friends that send postcards every time they travel. I think it’s a great tradition. I bet back when postcards first came out people were up in arms about how short form writing would ruin the delicate and crafty nature of letter writing. I think that any new form of communication is only as limited as one’s own ability to communicate effectively. Certainly everyone should look over their messages before sending. If I’m writing an important email to someone that I don’t know, I let it sit in my draft box for a night just to make sure I’m saying exactly what I mean to.

    Some of the courtesy’s about e-mail that I don’t feel are established and should be discussed more often are the length of emails and how much information to provide or ask for in a single message. I think it is difficult to respond to more than three things in a single email, yet I’m also not a fan of getting multiple emails in my mailbox. Gmail’s addresses some of this discomfort by threading messages, but too often people will send a message that is completely unrelated to the subject line of the original message. This is not very intuitive. I wonder if Emily Post has written about email etiquette?

    1. I too wonder if people did think that the post card would ruin the art of letter writing. It is amazing that we as a society crave new and creative ways to get our point across in less time. We have gotten close with Twitter, 140 characters of misunderstood updates and random thoughts.

      I also agree with your subject line comment. I sometimes get emails from people at work that use iPhones and their emails may not even include a subject line and the email is normally 1 sentence long. I am pretty sure they are emailing as they walk. Seems dangerous.

  9. The main problem in dealing with online communication is that it is difficult to read body language and facial expressions because all you are doing is looking at typed words. It is so easy to mistake what words/sentences that are typed really mean and how that person wants it to really come out.
    Through online communication people’s inhibitions tend to go away within the online community compared to the real life community. I think there are good and bad things about both. But with technology increasing we are allowed to have more options when it comes to communications allowing people more access to others, to meet more people from all different parts and to communicate in more creative ways such as online channels.

  10. I had a personal experience with e-mails that leads to misunderstanding. I had one month left to do my final assessment with the CEO of the company I was working for. During this month she send me some e-mails asking me to go see her in one hour, but every time I was doing some work outside the office, and would not see the e-mail in time. I never had the occasion to do my final assessment. It’s just an example of how e-mails can complicate communication. They seem easy and effective, but they’re often used as an escape to handle sensible subject. It’s usually because of these reasons that the subject should be handled face-to-face, or at least by phone. Sensible subjects require emotions and adaptation, which you cannot convey through e-mails. It’s difficult to understand someone without seeing his attitude or hearing their tone and mood.
    E-mails are indeed very useful tools to provide information like press releases, reports or analysis, for example. It’s easy and fast, it’s effective for subjects that don’t need specific answers, or deep understanding.
    They are usually well understood and effective when you know well the person, and when the subject is something regular or had already been tackled. It’s an important tool in the work place, and can be very helpful in a lot of different situations, but they just need to be used moderately.

  11. Email is fertile ground for misunderstandings and icy interpretations. Unfortunately, the lingua franca of email is too often a sort of passive-aggressive condescension that never really squares between sender and receiver, the two reversing roles on each reply. It’s true that haste makes waste and never truer when email is involved. I think Horowitz was right in her reconsiderations about voicemail. People speak more clearly about their wants and needs than they do when limited to writing out those requests.

  12. The trouble I face with email is how people “speak” in their writing. If someone writes a sentence in a weird way, making me re-read it 3 times and saying “WHAT?” outloud, then it throws off the entire email for me. I agree with Erin that emails should be short and sweet. They shouldn’t be used for writing in-depth information, that is what a phone is for. Or better yet, schedule a meeting (yes, this can be done through email) to meet face-to-face to talk about the topic.
    Another thing that I don’t like about emails is not being able to hear the tone of people’s voice. I feel like I can come off rude in emails, but if I was saying it to the person’s face, they would know I wasn’t being rude at all. Same thing vice versa, I read some emails sent to me that sound very rude and bossy, but maybe that person was just trying to be direct. With everything moving more and more towards communicating through technology, hopefully people don’t forget to pick up the phone or stop by the office at times to discuss important information.

  13. Perceived as old-fashioned I avoid e-mail, text, and any other form of non-face-to-face communication as much as possible. Not only does this allow for more interactive communication (adjusting as you go), more efficient communication, but also more honest communication (as someone is not able to hide behind a medium). Moreover, written communication is concrete, one-way, and can be inappropriately reused. Unless the interaction is based in discovery or fact-sharing, leave the rest to in-person communication.

  14. I think personal conversations are better had over the phone or in person, since emotion is sometimes difficult to establish via email.

    That being said, I love email in the workplace. Not for inter office communication necessarily, but more in dealing with public inquiries. So many times have I had a phone conversation with someone giving instructions or describing a process just to have the same person call me back because they forgot something I said, or didn’t write it down correctly. When email contains just facts it makes a great reference piece, a permanent record of what information was transmitted. I would go crazy with phone calls if it weren’t for good old email.

  15. Listening with your eyes is almost impossible. I know I have never been able to achieve this feat of anatomical incorrectness.

    We all have an individual voice inside our heads that speaks to us when we read email. Everyone’s is different and unique. It seems to be almost inevitable that our internal voices can be skewed by our current moods. Reading the wrong email at the wrong time can greatly influence the way we read into emails and not always for the best. I know that I have been the sender and receiver of emails that have been misinterpreted because of the current mood I was in. A seemingly polite email can be viewed as harsh.

    The building of relationships seems to also be lacking in environments where email is the main source of our information from coworkers. In my opinion, it is harder to misinterpret emails when you have used face to face communication first helps this problem.

    It really is too bad that we can’t hear with our eyes, it would be a real time saver. Perhaps video email will be the next great idea in corporate communication.

  16. The overwhelming majority of the youth culture prefers texting and less face2face contact in the average day. I am definitely in the minority on this. 80% of communication is nonverbal, which I am sure many have heard this statistic. So being able to express that 80% in the width of 20% sure does seem impossible, doesn’t it? I can’t recount how many times friends have complained over and over about a fight or breakup they have had with their boyfriend/girlfriend. Most of the issue had to do with miscommunication/misinterpreting by not being face2face for important conversations.

  17. I agree with Brent that the article is exaggerating with the %50 of all communication through email is misinterpreted. And yes, I agree that face to face communication is better than email and other IMs. You don’t read facial expression, emotions, body language or tone of the voice.
    This is why there are emotion such is  or :P. It didn’t solve the problem but it helps a little. Sometimes, email give you time to write what you want exactly. I personally prefer both communications, face to face or emails and IMs, on different types of situations.

  18. There is no doubt that communication through email and texting has grown significantly. I look at my personal cell phone package as a good example. Originally I signed up to a 600min/per month plan with unlimited texting and data (internet). Recently I went into AT&T to upgrade to the iphone 4 and found out I’ve actually only been using on average 120min per month and texting over 600 times.

    I think people are becoming more resistant to calling each other because email and texting does tend to be more informal. Looking at the future, it would’t surprise me if the traditional way we write email changes. Maybe it will be less common to see full sentences and just bullet points. Anything to weed out emotion from writing, as it can tend to be misinterpreted.

  19. I honestly only text or email in reply or if that is the best way to communicate the same message to multiple people. But if I can, I just call people because not only does my phone only allow me to text a certain amount of characters per message but because I don’t think I can fully explain my meaning without the other person hearing my voice. This topic of email and messaging was brought up in class the other day and I often talk about it amongst friends and family. I’ll be in a middle of texting someone back, but then delete it and just call because to me it’s just easier. I only text if I cannot leave the room or if the answer is a simple yes or no.

    I’ve even started inserting things like (she said with a sarcastic tone) or a “by the way, I meant that in a excited tone, not an angry one”. Someone in my class actually said that she uses emoticons a plenty to convey her message. This can work just fine for many, but when you’re in a more formal business environment the emoticons or having to explain your emotion may be unprofessional and immature. I think that is why in business school their is such an emphasis on business writing and communication. Just because something is easy to do, doesn’t mean that the content should be nor should we be expected to simplify our emails and texts. If it’s a complicated matter, than just call the person or talk to them in person. Otherwise learn to communicate and write better.

  20. I think it is hard to portray serious emotions through email, especially depending on who is on the other side the email. If your writing back between family or friends, they may understand your personality more, and be able to get more out of an email. This does not work well in other situations, where you may be a little less familiar with the person, they may not get some personality differences or comments that are made.

    I have also had experiences where you respond too quickly to an email, that may have emotions behind it. Instead of evaluating what was said and taking the time to reply, you reply immediately with your first reaction, this could potentially not be favorable in all situations.

  21. I agree that it’s difficult to communicate with someone via e-mail because it could cause miscommunication easily. Although email provides convenience for us to talk to people now, it is not an effective and efficient way for communication. I think there are several problems involved in email. First, email could take longer time to get a right response. The sender and the receiver may think and perceive a message differently, which makes them communicate differently. Therefore, it could take several times to send emails back and forth in order to get an expected answer. Second, as the article mentions, it is hard to get and understand the emotion behind a message. Email is lack of interpersonal nuances. If I don’t know the person well, it is hard for me to guess what the actual feeling that he or she wants to express through his or her words. Personally, I don’t like using email to communicate with people. I prefer face-to-face communication because I can actually see the person’s body language and hear the person’s tone, which could help me understand their real thoughts more easily. Another advantage of the face-to-face communication is I can ask questions when I need to clarify something during the conversation. Therefore, if email is not the only choice that I have, I would not use it as a way to communicate.

    1. I do agree with you Linda. Indeed, Email are used only to send information but it is very hard to perceive the emotion of the sender when you receive an email. I know that managers and more generally employees prefer face to face because they are able to understand the body language that communicate the emotions and the feelings of the speaker during a conversation. That’s why, I prefer face-to-face than emailing when I have important information to communicate or during a brainstorming.

  22. I agree about e-mail could make communication difficult. Using email for communication is very convenient. Especially, when we engage in a school group project, it is hard to find a mutual time to have a face-to-face meet up. Email allows us to send out information to receiver in a quickest way. It also allows us to get immediate response from the receiver. However, the entire conversation through email is not that effective. In my personal experience, I had encountered in a very embarrassing situation. My email address was mistyped from “I” instead of “L”. As the result, I had never received any emails from my group. I missed the opportunity discussing our group project; I did not receive anything about group face-to-face meet up time. I am very proactive in engaging in group discussion. On the other hand, communication via email had changed everything. I later sent out email and got problem fixed. I think communication through email sometimes is ineffective in some ways. Moreover, I think people who response email instantly would have emotional involved in words. As a receiver, I can see that they have emotional feelings when use of words. Personally, I prefer face-to-face communication, the body language, facial expression and the use of words give me insights about the true feeling of the person, while email does not. Face-to-face communication is more effective; it creates less miscommunication than email.

  23. I certainly agree with the fact that it’s difficult to listen to someone via e-mail. Many times people use email to communicate something they are not confortable saying face to face. Unfortunately this type of communication creates a lot of room for misunderstanding. I also believe that email is many times abused causing delays in productivity and communication. In my previous job there were issues that were best communicated by talking but we all felt that email was the only way to communicate. This wasted a lot of time and I felt things could have been resolved much faster if the use of email was minimized. One of the benefits email does provide is written record of conversations and information disclosed which can be helpful.

  24. I highly agree that it can be difficult to understand someone’s true intention and tone when communication is by way of e-mail. Body language, voice inflection, eye contact, and other socail cues make it ineffective in determining the intent. I can particularly relate to this through text messaging. Often times I will be texting someone and completely misunderstand what they are trying to say. Usually this is because sarcasm goes unnoticed or the person has a sense of humor that doesn’t always translate across such simple communication. I text constantly every day and can usually tell what is being implied, especially with people im used to texting on a regular basis. Confusion still occurs here and there however and the same can be said for e-mails when I happen to be using them. Face to face or talking on the phone is far more effective.

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