People who read my emails must think my parents are Mr. Rogers and double-espresso. For a very strategic reason, I write with more emotions, LOLs, and exclamation points than a Twilight chatroom: humans are prone to misinterpret text-only communications. A strategy of unmistakably positive emails could have saved the White House from its most recent crisis of having to prove it didn’t send threatening emails to journalist Bob Woodward.
The veteran political journalist is making front-page headlines after claiming that presidential economic advisor Gene Sperling threatened him over email. “I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post,” wrote Sperling, in the e-mail obtained by Politico. “I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim.”
The political press is giddy with air-time-filling joy as they of overanalyze Sperling’s word choice. Was he threatening Woodward with ominous consequences for saying Obama backtracked on economic promises, or was he warning his friend that his reputation would be harmed by poor political analysis?
As the recipient of the email, Woodward has taken the all-too-common interpretation of feeling attacked. “People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they ‘hear’ the tone they intend in their head as they write,” explained University of Chicago Psychologist, Nicholas Epley, who authored a study on how often people misinterpret emails. “People in our study were convinced they’ve accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance.”
Epley found that compared to a phone call, participants were dreadfully bad at guessing whether a statement was sarcasm or serious.
Since we can’t use our finely tuned perception of body language to understand the disembodied medium that is email, humans tend to grasp for very poor proxies. In chat messages, for instance, users look for the speed of response to interpret the intentions of the sender. I often find myself wondering if a colleague is angry at me, if they take long a time to send a response (when, in fact, they’re usually just busy).
In some cases, like Sperling, we’re lucky enough to know how the recipient felt. More often than not, our colleagues just stew in their misinterpreted reflections, as our relationships die for unknown and completely preventable reasons.
While over-the-top happy emails can seem annoying, time-consuming and unprofessional, I’ve learned it’s the only way to avoid the dreaded misinterpretation. So, until we find a way to add emotions to our texts or beam thoughts directly from our heads, I’ll continue to correspond like a pre-teen; perhaps, the White House should too.