Thursday, February 22, 2007

The not-so-big story on email

The spate of recent stories which have referenced new research into the pitfalls of communicating via email conducted by Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management asst professor Kristin Byron made me curious enough to take a peek behind the press release. It turns out her research is a theoretical model derived from her study of “computer-mediated and nonverbal communication, emotion, and perception literature.” It’s titled Carrying Too Heavy a Load? and will be published by the Academy of Management in January ’08.

The gist of the study is a set of theoretical propositions derived from Byron’s review of the literature. She proposes:

  • That we read email thru a lens, darkly -- messages intended to be positive are likely to appear neutral and messages are likely to appear more negative than intended;

  • That this effect is magnified when the messages come from males, senders of high status (like your boss), or people with whom you don’t have well-established relationships;

  • That this effect varies by the age (young people read more negative emotion; old people read positive as neutral) and the mood of the reader (bad moods means negative interpretations);

  • That message rules and emoticons can dampen the effect by creating a shared context.

There’s no proof here, but I’ve had enough run-ins over misread emails that I'm not surprised by Byron’s conclusions. The big question in my mind is what can you do to minimize the likelihood of your own emails being misread.

Unfortunately, Bryon doesn’t offer many answers. First, she says, “recognize the possibility that, as the model suggests, we are fallible as both email senders and receivers.” Then, “use established, shared cues to communicate emotion” and "[seek] clarity by repeating important information or by asking for feedback [to] more accurately express emotions.”

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