Like it or not, we are dependent on email.
A survey from the Pew Research Center found that six in 10 (61%) of American workers claimed that email is essential to their job, beating the use of the Internet, which just over half (54%) ranked as important.
As we continue to aspire to the mythical inbox zero, the fact remains that we dash off an enormous amount of correspondence daily. And with that, we navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of communicating asynchronously in a medium that doesn’t lend itself to expressing how we really feel.
At least, that is what we used to think. Andrew Brodsky, a PhD candidate in organizational behavior at Harvard Business School, researched how unintentional behaviors like typos from the email sender can actually convey emotion to the recipient.
Emoticons and exclamation points notwithstanding, Brodsky points to other research that suggests unintended interpretation arises from the emotional expectations of the individual on the receiving end.
“Consider the email: ‘Good job on the current draft, but I think we can continue to improve it.’ Coming from a peer, this email will seem very collaborative; coming from a supervisor, it may seem critical,” he writes in Harvard Business Review.
Digging deeper, context plays a heavy role in interpretation:
- Coming from those with more power = negative
- People we’ve known for a while = not as negative
- The person’s personality = negative or positive, depending on their general demeanor
Brodsky’s research revealed that there is one less well-known factor that plays into how emails are received.
For example: typos. You can blame it on fat-finger syndrome, being in a hurry, or autocorrect, but the fact is, at some point we all make mistakes in our emails. But typos are more than just a great equalizer, they can actually convey strong emotion. His experiments showed that emails written in an angry tone were perceived as more angry. Typos also amplified happy correspondence.
The reasoning behind this is that emails have the potential to be edited until they are perfect. A typo makes the sender appear more authentic, and less desirous of simply trying to make a good impression.
Brodsky says that typos can be used with intention, especially when the person is in a position of power. Other research indicates that when a superior blunders, they are actually viewed as more attractive. (This doesn’t work for those in the middle.)
A word of caution: those who make the typos are perceived as being less competent.
Even the best-intended emoticon can be read the wrong way.
Take this email, for example:
The intro of the commercial needs to be redone. I’m sure that’s the client’s doing and you will handle it :). Warm Regards, [Manager’s Name].
Without context, Brodsky notes that this was written with a tone designed to encourage the employee. But the recipient took umbrage with the smiley face and read the entire thing as “condescendingly nasty.”
While it is true that mimicking the language of the person you are communicating with in text-only chats can boost a sense of trust and understanding, in this case, the attempt to lighten the correspondence backfired, because it was emotionally ambiguous.
Brodsky says, “If the manager had avoided subtlety and stated her meaning directly, there might have been less room for interpretation.”
So rather than chase the inbox zero unicorn, it may be better to focus on what we could do to make our emails more intentional, and thus better received.
What’s standing in the way can be a challenge. In the same way we love to go on about ourselves, Brodsky says, “We tend to be overly focused on ourselves and our own goals, while failing to amply account for other people’s perspectives.”