There’s a study for everything. Psychologist Justin Kruger, PhD, and Nicolas Epley, PhD, of the University of Chicago have published their results (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 89, Nov. 5) that illustrate how sarcasm isn’t easily communicated electronically. Is there any wonder in this result? Without that eye-roll, verbal emphasis, pause, or wink, sarcastic remarks often fall short of their intended mark.
Krurger and Epley find that people overestimate both their ability to effectively communicate their intended tone in an email message and their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages written by others (whether funny, sarcastic, or serious).
Why? The disconnect has been attributed to egocentrism — when people have a difficult time detaching themselves from their own perspectives and understanding how others will interpret them.
But this isn’t about you. Right? You get it. Others could use the help, but you – you’re funny, clever, and your co-workers and friends “get” your snark.
Unfortunately, not at often as you think.
In the initial part of the study, participants sent messages via voice recording and email. The speakers and writers each anticipated a 78% success rate in effectively communicating their designated messages. The participants recording their messages were close — 75% of their messages were received as expected. But only 56% of the email messages were correctly received. That’s little better than half!!
Wait! It gets better — the receivers of said messages anticipated a 90% accuracy rate.
Wow. That’s a lot of unmerited confidence on both sides.
Inspired by previous research by psychologist Elizabeth Newton, PhD., Kruger developed additional experiments to delve deeper into the social phenomenon of egocentrism and hypothesized that the sender assumed that the receiver had the same understanding of intentions, motivations, and information.
In 1990, Newton tested the ability to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song and predict listeners’ ability to guess the song. Tappers predicted a 50% success rate. Success rate was actually 2.5%.
Reason being, according to Kruger, is that tappers “hear” the full, complete, song in their minds as they tap, but listeners hear only the random tapping.
“It’s impossible not to hear the song as you’re tapping away,” says Kruger. “So you have a hard time separating yourself from your own perspective and realizing how impoverished the listeners’ data really are.”
Comparatively, email writers “hear” their intended tone while forgetting that recipients don’t have access to all that extra information.
Kruger and Epley repeated their first experiments, but this time the email writers were required to read their messages aloud before sending. Half of the writers read their messages with the intended tone, the other half assumed an opposing tone — sarcastic tone for a serious message, or a serious tone for a sarcastic one. Epley explains that the point was to force participants to step outside of their own perspective and to negate some of the egocentric impact.
It worked. Participants who read their messages as intended still over-estimated the recipients’ ability to accurately interpret the message, but those that read their message in an opposing tone no longer did.
How can this help you?
Anyone who has ever been asked if they really meant something they said in an email that they thought was clearly funny or sarcastic, can attest to the unintended consequences of misunderstood tone.
When composing an email that contains emotional content, read it out loud. Read it in various tones of voice. Remind yourself that there is roughly a 50% chance of being misunderstood. Ask yourself if this is a message better delivered over the phone or in person.
Do you have a great story about unintended consequences of an email that you or someone you know sent? We’d love to hear it.