Email overconfidence is a dangerous thing

Considering that an estimated 247 billion emails are sent each day, you might think we would all be dab hands at getting our messages across. But a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals that, while we believe we’re making ourselves clear, we actually need to be more careful.

Lost in translation

The tone and context of your email is likely to be misinterpreted in at least 15 per cent of emails, according to the study. And part of the problem is the fact that we are overly confident that what we write will be understood as we mean it to be.

A series of five experiments showed that email senders overestimate how accurately the tone of their message will be identified. Sarcasm and humour are particularly problematic: trying to express either in email is clearly a risk. However, the most notable result from the experiments was not how many times the reader misunderstood the tone, but the disparity between how often the writer expected to be understood and how often they actually were.

In one experiment, half the participants emailed a series of statements – a mixture of serious and sarcastic – to the other half, who had to deduce how each statement should be read. While the sending group expected 97 per cent to be recognised, only 84 per cent were. Put into real terms, that means almost one fifth of your recipients might be misled, confused or even offended by your emails.

‘But my colleagues understand me’

Do they, though? Further experiments showed that the success rate in interpreting tone was the same whether the recipient knew the sender or not, meaning equal care is needed whether writing to a new client or a well-known colleague. Less surprisingly, the recognition of tone was identified correctly most often in spoken statements – though still not as regularly as the speaker predicted.

Evidently, without the non-verbal cues – the facial expressions, body language and gestures – of face-to-face communication, any ambiguity of tone in your writing may well lead your reader to misunderstand your meaning. So judge your recipient well, or joke at your own risk.

Read the full white paper, ‘Lost in translation’.

Our blog contains lots of tips on how to write good emails, and we also run an in-company course on effective email writing.

The definitive guide to transforming the writing of individuals and teams