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Be Careful How You Interpret E-Mails

If you send e-mail replies to your work colleagues regularly or ever posted a comment on a public message board, your chances are no better than 50-50 of it being interpreted correctly, even though the writer believes he or she has correctly ascertained the tone of the e-mails or comments to which they are responding 80 percent of the time.

Researchers derived those percentages based on a study of e-mail responses from 30 pairs of college students who were given a list of statements about a variety of subjects. Then, one student would send an e-mail based on the list, written in a sarcastic or serious tone. Then, the sender and recipient would guess which tone was intended and estimate how confident they were that the e-mails were properly interpreted.

Not surprisingly, senders felt their e-mail recipients would correctly predict the tone of their intentions about 80 percent of the time, but match the reaction of recipients only about half as often. The random factor, scientists say, that makes the difference on either side -- sending or receiving e-mails -- is egocentrism, the inability to understand how something like an e-mail or a conversation can be misinterpreted.

This occurs, researchers say, because many of us fail to take into account that we're hearing the tone of the ongoing e-mail conversation in our heads as we write it. Perhaps, the best way to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and confrontations -- especially when the ongoing written conversation gets heated -- would be to take a short empathy break to get some perspective via the Emotional Freedom Technique, the safe and effective energy psychology tool I use in my practice, before continuing.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 89, No. 6, December 2005: 925-936

Wired News February 13, 2006

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