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Is Your E-Mail Embarrassing You?

Charged with organizing a dinner party where members of her university's psychology department could meet a candidate for an open faculty position, a psychologist e-mailed invitations to her colleagues on the hiring committee. After listing the details of the event, she jokingly admonished that "talking to the candidate is not required; just don't embarrass us." Her attempt to be funny failed when some recipients thought she was being serious.

"She meant it as a joke, but much to her surprise some people were really upset," says Justin Kruger, PhD, who was one of the e-mail recipients. Kruger and his colleague Nicholas Epley, PhD, of the University of Chicago, studied why we misinterpret e-mail messages. They found that we overestimate our own ability to communicate the nature of our messages via e-mail. We think we are so good at conveying sarcasm or humor in our written messages that readers can't help but understand that we're only kidding.

The problem, say the researchers, is egocentrism -- a technical name for our inability to separate ourselves from our own perspectives. We tend to believe that everyone sees what we see, or thinks what we think. Therefore, what the writer considers humorous is not necessarily funny to the reader.

But e-mail senders are not always to blame. Turns out, we have the same high opinion of ourselves as recipients; that is, we overrate our ability to construe the tone of the e-mail messages we receive from others. And that often leads to conclusion-jumping interpretations.

"There's nothing new about text-based communication," says Epley. "People have been writing letters for centuries. But what's different in [e-mail] is...the ease with which we can fire things back and forth. It makes text-based communication seem more informal and more like face-to-face communication than it really is."

What's the answer? Epley suggests picking up the phone. "E-mail is fine if you just want to communicate content, but not any emotional material."

The senior leadership team at a very progressive organization I know recognizes how disruptive misunderstood e-mail messages can be. That's why each team member strives to limit their number of outgoing e-mails to ten a day. When the leaders reach their limit for a day, they reach for the phone. The result: fewer e-mails and better communication.

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