In a long-ago article, Face-to-Face Negotiation Better than Email, I wrote about a Harvard B-school study on negotiation, conflict and email. Professor Kathleen Valley found that about 50% of negotiations conducted by email end in impasse, while only about 19% of face-to-face negotiations do so. She also concluded that we behave differently by email than we do in person.
A recent Christian Science Monitor article, It’s All About Me: Why E-Mails Are So Easily Misunderstood adds to the picture with intriguing information from several studies about email and communication:
- One study suggested that email increases the potential for inadvertent prejudice for women and people of color because it tends to feed the recipient’s preconceptions. “A misspelling in a black colleague’s e-mail may be seen as ignorance, whereas a similar error by a white colleague might be excused as a typo.”
- In a study of people’s ability to detect sarcasm in email, researchers concluded that email recipients overestimate their ability to correctly decode feelings the sender was trying to convey. The researchers believe it’s because people are egocentric—they assume others experience stimuli the same way they do.
Because it lacks cues like tone of voice and facial expression, email makes it more difficult to accurately decode the writer’s meaning, making relationships more fragile in a conflict situation. For stronger business and personal relationships, it’s important to build the kind rapport that comes best from direct, personal communication. As I noted in my long-ago post, in conflict situations or other moments you believe there might be miscommunication or tension, take your fingers off the keyboard. Pick up the phone instead.