How good are you at guessing the tone of voice of the emails you receive? Can you tell when someone is being sarcastic, serious or is joking?
Most of us think we can do this about 90% of the time. However, according to psychologists Dr. Nicholas Epley (University of Chicago) and Dr. Justin Kruger (New York University), who published their research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (membership required to access), we get it wrong 50% of the time. Those are the same odds as tossing a coin.
“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,” says Epley.
Unfortunately, this takes a lot of fun out of email. Apparently, we can no longer show off our sharp wit in carefully crafted, poignant emails — half of the recipients will misunderstand us! So, no more sarcasm, irony or subtle nuances in email messages, and criticism must be delivered over the phone, where our tone of voice adds clarity to what we say.
Before sending an email, try reading it out loud in the opposite tone of voice from the one you originally intended. This will alert you to any problems.
Also, as Dave Pollard says, smileys can be a warning sign:
“In e-mail, smileys are just a way of apologizing in advance for how you think you will be misunderstood.”