Tone Problems in Emails

10 December 2009 


Word count:  460

Estimated reading time:  4-5 minutes



Email has many benefits – speed and convenience among them.  But it also has the potential for problems related to tone.


Research shows that readers of email will frequently misinterpret your meaning when you try to convey a particular attitude or emotion.


The research


Prof. Nicholas Epley, behavioral scientist from Harvard University, and Prof. Justin Kruger, experimental psychologist at the University of Illinois, did a study of how well readers were able to interpret the tone of email messages.


In their study, the participants sent and received email messages – half that were intended to be sarcastic and half intended to be sincere.


The result


The writers believed that their intended tone and message were clear 75% of the time.  And the readers believed that they had clearly interpreted the meaning 90% of the time.


But the readers of the emails actually misinterpreted the messages 50% of the time.  This is a very dangerous thing, because it means that both readers and writers of these messages had no idea that they had made mistakes.


The reason


It’s very difficult to convey tone in writing.  Even native speakers have a hard time with this (the research study above was done with native speakers).  Readers can’t rely on non-verbal messages, like the tone of your voice or your facial expression.


In email, we sometimes rely on boldface, italics, underlining, ALL CAPS, punctuation (!!) or emoticons (like J & L) to show what we mean.  But these devices have limited impact – and they can be easily misunderstood.  With the hundreds of emoticons now available to download and insert into your documents, the emotions they are supposed to indicate may be unclear to your readers.  And it’s not appropriate to use emoticons in email we send to external clients or vendors anyway. 


The solution


If you need to communicate an attitude or emotion in emails, here are some tips.

1)  Pause before you hit the ‘send’ button.  Think about any possible ways that the reader might misinterpret your message.  If possible, ask someone else to read it and tell you what they think it means.  If they get it wrong, your intended reader probably will too.  So you’ll need to revise it.

2) Avoid using emoticons (eg, J L).

3) If you’re not sure your meaning will be absolutely clear, it’s better to pick up the phone and speak to that person.  Email or any written communication is often more ambiguous than voice communication.  So if you speak face to face or by phone, you’ll be much more likely to get your point across.


With the possibility that half the time your attitude or emotion will be misinterpreted, why take that chance? 

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