Who among us hasn’t been in this situation: You receive an email or text from someone you know and wonder, “What did they mean by that?” “Are they mad at me—or maybe they were just in a rush??” The truth is, although email has made it easier than ever before to send and receive messages with all of the people in our lives—from friends and family members to professional contacts and more—it can be argued that the ease and convenience we’ve gained from modern forms of conversing have been offset by an unfortunate increase in a more impersonal approach to communication, and more opportunities for the mistranslation of a message’s meaning and intent.
For humans—and for all animals, really—things like context, body language, and emotion factor heavily into how messages are delivered and received, and when these things are taken out of the equation, which happens when communicating over email, trouble can ensue.
According to a recent Psychology Today article, “Research by UCLA psychology professor emeritus Albert Mehrabian found that 7 percent of a message was derived from the words, 38 percent from the intonation, and 55 percent from the facial expression or body language. In other words, the vast majority of communication is not carried by our words alone…Not surprisingly, research shows we communicate most effectively in real-life, real-time conversation.”
Just think about it—if only 7% of our messages are derived from the actual words we use, that’s a whopping 93% that’s left to speculation, guesswork, and possible misinterpretation when we communicate over email without the helpful cues that face-to-face communication provides!
This gets especially important when you’re talking with someone about a potentially controversial subject or have opposing views on a topic. According to a recent article on Ladders, when we’re facing someone with a point of view that’s in opposition to our own, we respond more favorably and humanely when the conversations includes voice vs. words, which helps to keep discourse civil.
The Ladders article suggests that vocal communication may be a better vehicle for controversial conversations because “those vocal tics of inflection, intonation, and normal pauses humanize us in ways that get lost over a text message where emotion is implied in emoji and punctuation, and tone is easy to miscommunicate…If you want your controversial take to be seen as more than mindless drivel, get off your keyboard and give the person a call.”
This information can have a profound effect on how we operate at work. These days, so much of our work lives are spent alone at our desks, silently typing away a volley of email missives on our computers and phones all day. With the volume of email we send out, it would be quite a challenge to stop and think about how each and every message we send will be construed by every receiver—that would be exhausting!
Therefore, some general rules of thumb might be helpful here: use email when sending simple and straightforward messages that are free from emotion, critical evaluation, and potentially controversial opinions. If your messages do contain these items, consider stepping away from your keyboard and engaging in a face-to-face conversation—old-fashioned perhaps, but it just might save you from an uncomfortable, awkward, or embarrassing situation.