Saturday, February 18, 2006

Miscommunication made easy: email

I suspect there are numerous problems with this study of undergraduates, but it is amusing:
Wired News: The Secret Cause of Flame Wars

According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I've only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time.

... The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers.

Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time.
On the one hand undergraduates are notorious about leaping to conclusions and one wonders how incented the writers were to do their job well. Sarcasm and irony are extremely hard to communicate.

On the other hand, I admit to having written many emails that were misconstrued. And those are only the ones I heard about. The researchers may be about right. Some general guidelines for corporate email:
  1. Assume anything sent by email will be read by the entire world.
  2. Don't do irony, don't do sarcasm. They're hard to do. Mark Twain was misunderstood.
  3. Keep email short. As a rule if it's more than three paragraphs send a document attachment. (People read documents differently from email, in particular they often print them. Seems to help.)
  4. You can try emoticons, but remember #2. Humor doesn't work well either!
  5. If you ever pause for to wonder if your email is impolitic, it is probably lethal. Delete it at once and burn the hard drive.
  6. If it takes too long to craft the email, phone instead.
  7. Configure your email program so that mail is not sent immediately, but is instead queued for sending. There've been quite a few times I edited something I'd sent to that queue.
  8. Assume your email will go to the wrong person and that they'll misinterpret it. This is commonplace with Outlook thanks to its braindead systems of at least 3 (4 I think) completely distinct and inconsistent methods for autocompleting email addresses.
I have more email "best practices" at work. I'm going to try and dig up my references and add them here.

Update 2/20/06:

Steve Robbins wrote an excellent article on 'email best practices' for the Harvard Business Review. The key takeways are very clear subject lines (revise them!) and being very careful about using the CC option. The person who should take action should be the primary subject, key interested parties the CC line. (If there's no action required, why the heck are you sending the email?). Prune the CC line on longer messages.

When in doubt use forwarding rather than CC. Never BCC unless it's to yourself.

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