Friday, January 27, 2012

Egocentrism over Email

I just finished reading a study published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about the benefit of factoring in paralinguistic cues such as gesture, emphasis, and intonation and how without them it can be difficult to convey emotion and tone over email.

Email communication is ubiquitous. Businesses rely almost solely on it. Interpersonal relationships can't seem to be without it. However, communication is multi-faceted and without paralinguistic feedback it can be quite lacking.

I had an experience with a work email the other day. As a trained close reader, tone matters to me. I pictured what the writer of the email meant by it if the same content were shared by way of the voice while being physically present. I still didn't quite feel I got to the core of the text.

I was in too tired a state of mind to place a phone call. Instead, I choose to give it a few hours, wrap up some last-minute things, tidy the desk, put things away, and then I compile the text. It was an exercise in economy of speech. And as most such exercises go, they take time.

Afterwards, a number of phone calls ensued for the purpose of getting to a full understanding of the content and what now feels like a waste of 60 minutes of my time. In the end, the original writer of the email concluded, incidentally by way of email, "so glad this is all sorted out. sorry :)" I wanted to email back the following, "it wouldn't have even been born had one of us verbally phrased the same thing." But I didn't. Because I was in no mood to waste yet another hour of my already packed existence.

A bit from the study says:

"Five experiments suggest that this limitation is often underappreciated, such that people tend to believe that they can communicate over e-mail more effectively than they actually can. Studies 4 and 5 further suggest that this overconfidence is born of egocentrism, the inherent difficulty of detaching oneself from one’s own perspective when evaluating the perspective of someone else. Because e-mail communicators “hear” a statement differently depending on whether they intend to be, say, sarcastic or funny, it can be difficult to appreciate that their electronic audience may not.

Social judgment is inherently egocentric. When people try to imagine the perspective, thoughts, or feelings of someone else, a growing body of evidence suggests that they use themselves as an
anchor or reference point. Although precisely why this occurs — whether the result of an overlearned and generally valid heuristic, the residual byproduct of an earlier stage of childhood egocentrism, or the inevitable consequence of an effortful cognitive process such as anchoring and adjustment—is a matter of some debate, the fact remains that the assessment of another’s perspectives is influenced, at least in part, by one’s own."

You can read the rest of the study here.

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