May 272013

It’s commonly said that tone is lost in email in such a way that often exacerbates conflicts. Certainly, that’s true. Recently, I realized part of the reason why that’s true.

Email is just words, and tone is largely communicated by vocal patterns and body language. Hence, tone is not communicated well via email. That’s a problem, since the same words, delivered maliciously or benevolently, have very different effects. However, that’s not the core problem in and of itself.

The core problem is that tone is a hugely important element of communication, such that readers will infer tone from whatever information they have available to them. With email, that means that tone is largely inferred from background knowledge about and judgments of the writer.

When a relationship is well-established as friendly (or malignant), the absence of tone in the communication isn’t much of a problem: the tone intended will likely be the tone inferred. However, when people are in conflict, the fact that tone isn’t communicated but rather inferred is a recipe for disaster.

In such cases, the reader will easily read a tone into the text that the writer didn’t intend without being aware of doing so. So a perfectly ordinary statement might be interpreted as snide or mean if the reader feels vulnerable and defensive due to an unresolved conflict with the writer. As a result, the conflict will often escalate suddenly, even though the writer intended the opposite.

That possibility is why it’s so important to pick up the phone to have some kind of real conversation when in the midst of a conflict with another person. (Better yet, meet with the person in person or via video call.) That’s often really hard for people. It’s really hard for me. I’m not concerned about the greater precision of writing, as some people are. Rather, I prefer the emotional distance of email for the simple reason that conflict is difficult and unpleasant.

Alas, that greater precision and distance often comes at a steep price — namely, prolonging or worsening the conflict. That’s worth remembering, I think, when considering whether to write that email or not.

  • Michael Hardy

    These comments could apply equally well to written communication via media that were used 50 or 100 or 1000 years ago. Could it be that the reason for saying “email” rather than “written communcation” is simply that 99% of all written communication is via the internet, and correspondence in the days of postal mail was nowhere near as voluminuous as written communcation via the internet in the present day?

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