What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

Before you send the love of your life a Valentine’s email, consider this: the tone of any email will be misinterpreted by its recipient 50 percent of the time, according to research from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The same study shows that recipients believe they’ve correctly interpreted the tone of received e-mails 90 percent of the time. So, will she read your Valentine’s greetings as a sincere expression of your love, or something else?

When we write, we expect our emotions to come across to our readers through our words. And sometimes they do. But in most cases, this study shows, readers interpret a written message based on their own mood and expectations, rather than the tone we try to convey. The result is hurt or misinterpreted feelings, flame wars, and, occasionally, litigation.

This is why it is always preferable to deliver big news, or emotional news, in person first, and then by phone, versus doing it by email or written note. Delivering big news in person allows your intended audience to receive not just your words, but also the verbal and physical cues that convey the emotional context behind your words. Delivering news by phone is not as good, but still better than email because your recipient at least gets your verbal cues. Email should be a last resort, because although the distance of email provides a kind of safety (especially for the shy), it also leads to mixed signals, misinterpreted words, or worse.


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