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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: We don't communicate as well as we think we do

April 3, 2006

Somebody once said computers permit you to make terrible mistakes faster than any other invention in history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila. Those among us who have lost friends, clients or jobs as a result of misunderstood e-mails would probably vote for computers.

At least handguns and tequila look a little menacing, and there's no way to mistake their purposes. E-mails, on the other hand, are friendly, fast and seemingly innocuous. Many of us shoot off dozens every day, and perhaps read dozens more. When they misfire, it's usually astonishing to us.

Most misconstrued e-mails prompt only a mild request for clarification, but a few are explosions that can take out whole relationships. Language that seemed clever when it left the keyboard turns into sarcastic criticism by the time it reaches the other end. Friendliness is mistaken for harshness. Precision looks like aloofness. Slang and jargon seem like intimidation. The succinct turns into the brusque.

Most of us probably assume that fumbling the tone of an e-mail is a rare mistake, but research shows it's frequent and destructive. The problem, it seems, is we're far too confident about our language skills.

Psychologists and linguists have known this a long time. We humans drastically overrate our ability to communicate, either in person or in text.

The University of Chicago published the results of a study in 2002 (chronic l e . u c h i c a g o . e d u / 0 2 0 5 0 9 / key s a r - research.shtml) that showed speakers thought they were being clear when they communicated ambiguous information; in reality, they were understood only about 50 percent of the time. The researchers speculated that speakers were momentarily living in an illusion of having control of the situation. At the same time, listeners also overestimated their ability to understand what was said. Put the two misperceptions together, and it's remarkable we can communicate anything at all, ever.

But people aren't lousy only at estimating their communications effectiveness. A Duke University study reported that we can't properly estimate our future free time, either (www.apa.org/monitor/feb05/freetime.html). We're also bad at estimating our own competence in general. Social psychologist David Dunning of Cornell has abundant evidence that we're not objective about how good we are at doing things (www.apa.org/monitor/feb03/overestimate.html). The University of Virginia has found we're even bad at estimating how steep a hill's gradient is (www. virginia.edu/topnews/releases/proffitt-oct-12-1999.html). Other studies show we can't properly estimate risks from terrorism, the costs of household items, or how well a new Web site will work. It makes you wonder if we humans are good at much of anything.

The same problem extends to e-mails. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and widely reported thereafter (such as in Wired magazine, www.wired.com/news/technology/0,70179-0.html) shows e-mail recipients understand the true tone of a message only about half the time, although they believe they understand about 90 percent of the time. In other words, we overestimate our ability to communicate our tone in cold text, and we overestimate our ability to interpret the tone of others. We're not good at either tossing or catching. This is the demonic combination behind flame wars and lawsuits. I'm waiting for Scott Adams to pick up on it for an upcoming Dilbert series of cartoons.

This revelation has unfortunate implications for business folk. It implies that no matter how much we reread messages before we hit send, or how much we agonize over our tone, it won't keep a recipient from misunderstanding us. In effect, every e-mail is a crapshoot. That's a paralyzing thought. It also means all the well-intentioned books, articles and seminars on writing foolproof e-mails are wasted keyboarding, because nothing can improve our odds anywhere near certainty.

About.com, for example, (www.careerplanning.about.com) counsels us that tone is a critical factor in e-mail, and that we should, therefore, pay attention to it. But that assumes our perception of our written tone can predict the recipient's perception. The research, however, shows you can't predict the recipient's reaction, no matter how hard you try. You can avoid some of the worst gaffes, of course, such as starting an e-mail to the CEO with "Dear Pointy-Haired Boss." But beyond that, we are apparently at others' mercy, even if we have the best of intentions.

In fact, I'm going to stop writing now, before someone takes offense at my tone. That's not sarcasm. Really.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at tim.altom@perficient.com.
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