Why we get more angry in email (according to science)

Angry-looking babyYou know the story. An innocent chat over email or instant messaging turns fraught and ends, if not in tears, then in a tense exchange that leaves both parties irritated and distracted.

It’s an all-too-familiar scenario. In fact, I spent hours a few months ago listening to similar, often toe-curling tales from clients and blog subscribers, in response to a call I’d put out asking for examples of misfired messages. Online conversations had landed them in hot water again and again, despite their best efforts. Clearly, it happens a lot.

Powerless to stop it

It even happened to me recently, and not for the first time (far from it). When it did, I could see things turning sour in real time. Yet still I felt powerIess to stop it. It was almost as if I was witnessing someone else’s conversation. But after I’d calmed down, it left me wondering: why does this happen so often?

It had all started when I’d asked a colleague for a project update, using Slack (our messaging system). Just a few seconds later, I got a one-word reply: ‘Why?’ Now, that could be an innocent question. But I sensed that it wasn’t. It definitely felt like he was irritated. Nor was he the only one. That terse response wound me up, too. Blood pressures were heading north. After just two messages.

It was a familiar feeling.

So familiar, in fact, that I’d hesitated to type the question in the first place. I knew there was a good chance I’d find the gentle shallows of our virtual conversation quickly descending into the murky depths of an online argument. And that despite my best efforts to avoid one.

In fact, it felt like my good intentions had actually made things worse. I’d gone into the conversation treading very carefully, as if every step might lead me to a treacherous patch of conversational quicksand. As a result, I’d probably been on the defensive from the start.

Was it my hesitation?

In hindsight, there was probably something about my hesitation and heavily caveated language that set me up to fail. It’s even possible that a more confident, strident approach would have pushed through my colleague’s resistance, so that we could both get on with our day.

Possible, but not certain. In truth, an approach like that could well have resulted in an angry, demotivated team member who would have done nothing productive for the next 20 minutes at least.

In fact, researchers have found it takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus after a distraction (and anger is one of the more extreme forms of distraction, of course). They have also found that being upset by something can affect every decision we make for the rest of the day – regardless of whether those decisions have anything to do with what upset us in the first place. So believe me, the effects of a tetchy exchange of messages are far from trivial.

One reason we often get upset when instant messaging or emailing is that reading takes a lot of brainpower, leaving less available for managing our emotions. @Robert_Ashton explains Share on X

Fortunately, in the case of my colleague and me, we had the presence of mind to avoid letting things get that far. We knew the dangers of using email and instant messaging for any topic that’s even vaguely emotive (or has become emotive). Experience had taught us that it was always best to cut to a phone call (or, if possible, speak in person) as soon as we felt we were digging ourselves into a digital hole like this. So that’s what we did. He said, ‘Shall we continue this conversation on the phone?’ I agreed, and things got better as soon as I heard his voice.

He saw that what he thought was an accusation was an innocent question. And I realised in less than a minute that what I had initially thought was irritation was actually reluctance to pursue a course of action that evidence had shown would probably not work.

But that exchange left me curious about what was going on. I wondered why talking had made such a difference. So I dug into the research. What I discovered may surprise you.

Email has its limits

It turns out that written messaging (including email and IM) is what psychologists call a low-capacity channel. There is a limit to how much information you can convey through the written word, devoid as it is of vocal tone and body language. Which is one reason why we so easily misinterpret the messages we receive. But the act of reading also takes a lot more brain power than we realise, leaving little cognitive capacity left to manage our emotions.

There is another reason though. It isn’t just that speaking can convey more information. There’s also a physiological effect. Our brains are wired to react to the human voice in a different way from how we respond to other sounds. Just hearing someone speak affects our emotions – usually for the better. That’s why the tension generated by a negative exchange like the one I described often seems to evaporate as soon as you convert it into a real conversation. Sometimes, you can almost feel the relief washing over you.

That relief is the effect of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin plays a key role in regulating and enhancing our emotions. (It’s often called the ‘cuddle hormone’, though that label isn’t strictly accurate and its effect is now known to be more complex than was once thought.)

The role of oxytocin

One study illustrated this beautifully. Researchers found that children placed in a stressful situation (not too stressful: they were asked to solve a maths problem in public) were soothed by hearing their mother’s voice. No surprises there, perhaps. But what did surprise the researchers was that the children were soothed far less by text messages from their mothers. And – crucially – they also found that those written messages did not trigger the release of oxytocin.

This doesn’t feel to me like the whole story: it was a small study and more research is definitely needed. (Is a similar effect found when speaking to other people, not just their mothers, for instance? What about the effect in adults? Or in boys, as the subjects were all female?) But it does at least provide a strong clue to what’s going on in our brains when we’re communicating.

It also shows that we need to be careful about relying too heavily on email and text messaging, as those media do not work as well with our biology as we may think. And it certainly means we need to be very wary indeed of criticising anyone over email or instant messaging, as the potential for them to take it badly is so much higher than if we were speaking to them.

Huge implications

This is true for everyone. And the implications are huge, given how reliant we’ve become not just on email and IM but on texting, social media and even defaulting to live chat for customer care. I spend my life thinking about how to write effectively and I’m still prone to this effect. I still land in trouble whenever I forget it. This isn’t about expertise. It’s about being human.

No matter how good a writer you are, no matter how great your skills at crafting the perfect message, you are still human too. And so is the person you’re writing to. Nothing will change that. Sometimes there really is no substitute for talking.


Mark, G & Klocke, U (2008). The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. Proceedings of the 2008 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. [PDF]

Seltzer, LJ; Prososki, AR; Ziegler, TE; and Pollak, SD (2012). Instant messages vs. speech; hormones and why we still need to hear each other. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(1): 42-45

Seltzer, LJ; Ziegler, TE; and Pollak, SD (2010). Social vocalizations can release oxytocin in humans. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 277: 2661-2666

Image credit: yasinemir / iStock

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