Oops! How sarcastic emails fall flat

Dear Boss – Really? You’d like me to attend the Hawaii meeting?! Hang on, I might have something on, let me just check my diary…” you email sarcastically – obviously you’d drop anything to be there. But then the reply comes back “Don’t worry, if you’re likely to be busy, I’ve asked Sarah instead”.

Disaster! Another message misinterpreted because of the ambiguity of email communication, stripped as it is of any extra-linguistic cues such as gestures and intonation. According to Justin Kruger and colleagues, this kind of communication breakdown is all too common because we overestimate how likely it is that recipients of our emails will appreciate our intended tone.

Indeed in several experiments, they confirmed overconfidence in intended meaning occurred more for email than for spoken communication, and that it still occurred whether or not senders and recipients knew each other well. Recipients too overestimated their ability to interpret the intended tone of emails.

One reason is that as we compose an email, we read it to ourselves silently with our intended tone, forgetting as we do that our recipient(s) might not read it that way at all. A solution could be to read emails to yourself in a neutral tone before sending them.

Indeed, when Kruger’s team asked participants to read a sarcastic message out loud to themselves in a neutral tone before sending it, they found they were more accurate than normal at judging how unlikely recipients were to realise they were being sarcastic.

By contrast, in another study, participants sending an email of a joke were more likely to overestimate how funny recipients would think the email was, if before sending the message, they watched a video clip of the joke being performed live.

“If comprehending human communication consisted merely of translating sentences and syntax into thoughts and ideas, there would be no room for misunderstanding. But it does not, and so there is”, the researchers concluded.

Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J. & Zhi-Wen, Ng. (2005). Egocentrism over email: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 925-936.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Are we also uncharacteristically impatient when it comes to emails?