Why Email Humor Falls Flat (and What to Do About it)

Last Updated Sep 29, 2008 2:32 PM EDT

  • How hot is your email?The Find: Research reveals that readers can correctly identify the tone of an email only about half the time; with the likelihood of misunderstanding so high, careful consideration is needed before you hit the send button.
  • The Source: A recent article in Psychology Today.
The Takeaway: Psychologists insist that humans are, in general, very good at making our feelings known with body language and facial expressions. Ironically, this ability is at the heart of a great many email misunderstandings. Some experts put the percentage of our communication that is non-verbal at 65 percent, others as high as 93 percent, but whatever the exact figure, it's a lot. Email strips us of the smiles, widened eyes and posture signals that help us convey our meaning and mood, while leaving intact our conviction that we're being perfectly clear.

And there's the trouble according to Nicholas Epley, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business,


People just have a tough time detaching themselves from their own perspective and imagining how their statements could be "heard" differently. The fact that we're usually very good at making ourselves understood is also what trips us up in the email domain. "We're all so adept at processing nonverbal cues that we do it without thought, in a happy-go-lucky way." So much so, that we often don't recognize ambiguous meanings, like in that dashed-off email that could be read two different ways.

So how can you combat your email hubris? Basic caution goes a long way. "Re-reading an email can reveal potential problems," Epley says. "Better still, read it aloud and listen closely for ambiguity." For important emails, Epley suggests walking away from the computer and coming back later with fresh eyes.

Still nervous about your command of tone? Eudora has recently added a feature that detects strings of words with the potential to offend called "Mood Watch." The program alerts users by displaying chili pepper icons. The more chilis displayed, the spicier the email. Handle those with the potential to burn with caution and be aware that even the program isn't perfect at picking up what's likely to offend.


The Question: Anyone brave enough to share an email catastrophe caused by a misunderstood tone?

(Image of chili peppers by Marcus Zorbis, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.