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Email and Your Ego

We have all had the experience of someone misinterpreting our email. Perhaps we were sarcastic, and our reader viewed the message as serious. Maybe we thought we were being funny, and the other person read us as angry. This type of miscommunication happens often in email–perhaps more often than we realize.

We often wonder how other people can possibly have gotten our message so wrong. Were they reading too fast? Not paying attention? Having a bad day?

Researchers Justin Kruger, Nicholas Epley, Jason Parker, and Zhi-Wen Ng looked at the role of our egos in miscommunication, in the article “Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think?” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

If you like reading about research, you may enjoy the article, which describes the researchers’ five studies. (Or subscribe free to my e-newsletter and read the details, simply stated, in this month’s issue.) Here are some of the study findings:

  • Email writers consistently overestimate their readers’ ability to distinguish sarcasm from seriousness. In one study, writers estimated that their readers would recognize sarcasm 78% of the time. In fact, their readers were correct only 56% of the time–no better than chance.
  • Email readers consistently overestimate their own ability to recognize sarcasm. In the study just mentioned, although they were correct only 56% of the time, they estimated their accuracy at 90%!
  • When it comes to identifying emotion in email, there is no difference, statistically speaking, between the accuracy of strangers and friends.
  • Writers overestimate the degree to which their readers will find their humor funny–especially when the writers have had a rich experience with the humor (seeing it performed on TV, for example).
  • Emoticons do not improve understanding.

For the trait that causes both readers and writers to overestimate their ability to handle the subtleties of email, researchers use the term overconfidence.

Don’t be overconfident. Even if you are an extremely upbeat, confident person, assume that the worst may go wrong with your message. Avoid sarcasm. Label your emotions. Pick up the phone or meet in person when the situation is awkward. Know that when you email a joke, your reader will not find it as funny as you did. Know too that your reader will assume he or she is correct–just like you.

Shall we rename email “egomail”? No, someone (probably most people) will undoubtedly take it the wrong way!


Other search spellings: emial, wirting, writng, reserach, reasearch, reaserach

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.