Even Your Friends Have Trouble Interpreting the Tone of Your Emails

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You probably expect your friends to understand you better than anyone else, but when it comes to email communication, that may not be the case. According to a recent study published in the Journal of Human Communication, no matter how confident you are that you’ve communicated your emotions clearly via email, they’re likely to be misunderstood: Strangers and friends alike have a hard time accurately interpreting emotions in emails.

Researchers at Chatham University conducted three experiments to measure how successfully people pick up on emotions in emails. In the first two experiments, researchers recruited volunteers from Mechanical Turk to write two emails and mark down which emotions (out of a list of eight: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation) they were trying to convey. For one of the emails, researchers asked participants to describe a made-up event (their favorite sports team losing, for instance) while the other emails were free-form. The emails were then read by strangers who marked which of the eight emotions they thought were present.

In the third study, researchers recruited student volunteers to write emails to their real-life friends, and list which emotions they were conveying. Volunteers were also asked to rank how confident they were that friends or strangers would correctly interpret their emotions. Friends of the volunteers, as well as strangers, then read the emails and marked the emotions they thought were present.

Researchers found that participants were confident that both strangers and friends would correctly interpret their emails—though they expected friends to be more successful. However, these expectations turned out to be unfounded: Neither strangers nor friends were particularly successful at interpreting email emotions. In fact, friends struggled nearly as much as strangers at identifying which emotions were present in an email (though researchers note that long-time friends were a little more successful). In the end, neither strangers nor friends were able to correctly identify the emotions email writers had intended to convey.

“George Bernard Shaw once proposed that ‘the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place,’” the study concludes. “Throughout this work, Shaw’s suggestion appears to be the dominant theme: Evidence supports overconfidence at the keyboard, and it is clear that reliance upon friendship and situational knowledge when interpreting emotion is ineffective at best, detrimental at worst.”

So the next time you want to email a friend about a nuanced emotion, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re communicating clearly—or save your message for an in-person conversation.