For almost two decades I’ve advised clients to avoid email and texting when tension grows in their important personal or business relationships. Is my advice still credible in an era so permeated by technology? A new study offers updated insight.
Last year, the CEO of marketing analytics agency TrackMaven decided to reply with “call me” to every email he received for a week.
Allen Gannett got the idea from a couple of colleagues he dubbed “phone prone” because of their tendency to reply to texts or emails with a phone call. These colleagues argued that interaction via phone was actually more efficient because, as one said, “So much is confused in an email about what someone’s implying.”
Gannett’s week was illuminating. He had fulfilling conversations that wouldn’t have occurred through typing alone. He heard nuances in what people said to him that he would have missed by email, such as hearing the stress in the voice of a customer.
Hearing someone’s tone, Gannett concluded, made it easier to understand where someone stood, so he could react better.
Gannett isn’t alone. Studies about a decade ago concluded that lack of intonation and facial expression make it harder to accurately decode meaning and intention in email. And since recipients tend to over-estimate their ability to correctly decode the sender’s message, communication can get more tangled.
A Harvard researcher found in 2000 that 50% of negotiations conducted by email ended in impasse, while only about 19% of face-to-face negotiations did. Email didn’t create new forms of conflict as much as it exacerbated conflict.
Fast forward to today, when email and texting have permeated our lives. Do we still suffer the same problems when we use those mediums to communicate?
Communications research published last fall concluded that when there’s disagreement, communication by text makes the communicator seem less human and more machine-like, which in turn can aggravate conflict. It is easier to disparage the opinions and intelligence of people we consider “lesser than” us.
On the other hand, the researchers noted, aspects of the spoken word — like intonation, cadence, and pauses — help humanize the speaker and make them seem more thoughtful, competent, and rational.
Concluded the researchers,
These results suggest that the medium through which people communicate may systematically influence the impressions they form of each other. The tendency to denigrate the minds of the opposition may be tempered by giving them, quite literally, a voice.– Juliana Schroeder, Michael Kardas and Nicholas Epley, The Humanizing Voice: Speech Reveals, and Text Conceals, a More Thoughtful Mind in the Midst of Disagreement
When things get tangled, particularly in relationships you value (or need) at work and home, resist the temptation to continue the conversation by text or email. Pick up the phone, walk down the hall, or wait until you both get home.