From the New York Times: E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and to Misread).
Still, if we rely solely on e-mail at work, the absence of a channel for the brain’s emotional circuitry carries risks. In an article to be published next year in the Academy of Management Review, Kristin Byron, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, finds that e-mail generally increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication.
One reason for this is that we tend to misinterpret positive e-mail messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended. Even jokes are rated as less funny by recipients than by senders.
We fail to realize this largely because of egocentricity, according to a 2005 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Sitting alone in a cubicle or basement writing e-mail, the sender internally “hears” emotional overtones, though none of these cues will be sensed by the recipient.
In case you didn’t notice the publication date, that article is from eight long years ago. Eight. The year the first iPhone came out, just to give you a benchmark for how far back in the mists of time we’re talking about here.
So, surely we rely on written electronic communication even more now than we did then: IMs, text messages, Slack, Twitter, Github issues, website comment threads, etc. Increased use of emoticons and emojis can help make our intended message and tone more clear – that’s why I don’t hesitate to use them, despite some people feeling that such things are somehow for teenagers – but working against better clarity is the tendency toward shorter, more abbreviated messages and responses.
The harsh truth of that article (you should read the whole thing) is at least as true today as it was in 2007: there is always – always – something lost in these written communications, and we would do well to remember that, whether we’re the writer, or the reader.