Email, as well as text messages, Tweets, and Facebook comments, are often misinterpreted. The words might be clear but the tone of the message is not understood. In fact, tone cannot be accurately communicated in these media. The brevity of the sender’s message and limited attention on the part of the receiver result in a kind of communication that is ripe for misconstrued emotion and intensity. This can cause receivers to feel anger, frustration, satisfaction, or joy when none of these feelings were the intent of the sender. The attitude of the sender is assumed, not actual.
With limited data and a bucketful of assumptions, the receiver of one of these messages often quickly climbs the “ladder of inference.” This is a concept first postulated by Chris Argyris that says that we climb up rungs of a mental ladder, going from observable data on the bottom rung to selectively attending to some of that data to attributing our own meaning to the selected data to making assumptions about the other people involved to taking action based on our assumptions about the other people when, in fact, we haven’t tested the accuracy of any of this thinking.
Of course, we can’t be continually checking out every observation and assumption we make. That would paralize us. These are probably adaptive skills that have evolved to help us function in our complex environments. But we can be aware of this thought process and how often we mentally run up that ladder when reading a terse email from a boss or somebody we supervise or when we get a surprising reaction to our messages. We need to be aware of the impact of our e-words on others and the unintentional impact e-words can have on us.
Dave Johnson, writing for CBS MoneyWatch, says this about the tone of email:
Be careful about your tone. It's hard to read tone in an email, which is why emoticons were invented. Be careful not to inject attitude or sarcasm into your replies, and give emails that you think have "an attitude" the benefit of the doubt. Also be really careful when trying to be funny -- it's easy to misinterpret humor in email. Bottom line: No matter how you feel about the people you're communicating with or the contents of the message, go out of your way to always be upbeat and polite.
Sarcasm is particularly difficult to convey in print. It relies on vocal intonation. For example, an email from boss to direct report that says, “don’t work too hard”, could be interpreted in a number of different ways. It could be sarcastic or it could be an admonition to relax. You can’t tell from the message.
Seth Godin offers excellent advice about email. He encourages us to ask ourselves some questions before sending. At least four of these are directly related to tone:
13. “Am I angry? (If so, save as draft and come back to the note in one hour).”
14. “Could I do this note better with a phone call?”
16. “Is there anything in this email I don't want the attorney general, the media or my boss seeing? (If so, hit delete).”
25. “Are there any :-) or other emoticons involved? (If so, reconsider).”
An article in the Boston Globe’s "Job Doc" column explains why phone and face-to-face communication are very different from email:
Tone matters. And email writers often underestimate the tone their writing takes on. When you talk on the phone with a person, they hear inflection and other clues that help transmit the tone of your words. When you speak face-to-face with a person, he has all the visual clues from your facial expressions and body language to help understand the tone of your words. What can be said sarcastically in person, and therefore is understood to be joking, can seem downright rude when just the words are seen on the screen.
Studies have shown that if you write something you think is positive in tone, the recipient will think it is neutral in tone. And when you write a message that you think is neutral in tone, the recipient takes it as negative in tone.
The difficult thing for you, as the writer, is that you don’t hear the tone in your words when you are writing or when you read the words back to yourself silently.
Alina Tugend, in her New York Times article titled, What to Think About Before You Hit ‘Send’, advises that, at times, we need to talk directly to others and not depend on e-words. She writes:
While it may seem particularly old-fashioned, I’ve found that sometimes it’s better to get off the computer and make a phone call. If e-mails are getting too complicated, if the tone seems to be degenerating, if they’re just not getting the job done, call or walk over to that colleague.
If you are even a slight bit worried that an email will be misunderstood, don’t send it. If you are reacting strongly (positive or negative) to what you perceive to be the tone of an email message you received, be aware that you might be climbing the ladder of inference.