The communication and miscommunication of emotion by email

Emotion in emails

It happens all too often. We open an email in our inbox, read the contents and perceive it to be emotionally negative. However, when we pick up the phone to discuss the issue, the sender is shocked we’ve interpreted their email in that way.

Despite advice to avoid doing so, email senders intentionally and unintentionally communicate emotion. Email characteristics make miscommunication likely. It has been shown that receivers often misinterpret work emails as more emotionally negative or neutral than intended. To ensure working relationships do not suffer, it’s important to improve the accuracy of emotional communication in emails.

Email use in the workplace

Employees are increasingly likely to use email to communicate with customers and colleagues. Email for business has many benefits such as flexibility and asynchrony over other communication media. Consequently, email has increased information sharing in organisations and improved productivity among employees separated by time and place.

However, the proliferation of email communication has also introduced some challenges not associated with other communication media. Research and theory suggest one likely deleterious effect of email use is harm to workplace relationships. It has been argued that the characteristics of email increase the likelihood of conflict escalation among those communicating this way.

A study of faculty and staff at a university teaching and research institute found that as email use increased, the overall volume of all forms of communication decreased, mostly because of fewer “greetings” and other informal interactions between colleagues. In addition, employees reported feeling less connected to their colleagues as email use increased.

Conveying emotions in emails

A related potential problem lies in the communication of emotion. For several reasons, emotions are particularly difficult to accurately communicate by email. Although some have argued that email should not or cannot convey emotion, more recent theory and research suggest that email senders do communicate emotions to recipients, whether intentionally or not. This is because as emails are text based and relatively lacking in cues, their emotional tone is often ambiguous.

People online are still people

It’s important to take the time to feel what the recipient of your message feels and know the limits of virtual humour. It’s best to err on the side of friendliness and professionalism. Words impact the receiver in ways that the sender cannot completely fathom. Your emotions are a valid representation of how you feel – no matter how intense – but that doesn’t mean that acting on them in the moment serves you well. Go ahead and vent – tap out your anger and frustration on the keyboard. Save the draft and come back to it later when you’ve cooled down. By then, you’ll be feeling more rational and able to edit the message or – even better – rewrite the kind of message that you want to be remembered by.

Written by

Hello, I’m Emilie Myers and I’m a People Development Specialist helping managers and teams work better together. I do this through 121 coaching, group sessions and the delivery of leadership and management programmes where in partnership with your organisation I identify the key people challenges and deliver transformational workshops to move your business forward.

1 Comments to “The communication and miscommunication of emotion by email”

  1. You are so right Emilie. It can be a real issue. Building in time for reflection and review is a great idea if you are planning to err to the side of vitriolic. Unfortunately, for practical reasons, too often email replies are all about speed and brevity, and we just don’t take the time to ‘stand in the recipients shoes’ and reflect on how it might come across.

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