Rhodri Marsden: Cyberman

Your message may get lost in translation

Sarcasm may be the lowest, most transparent form of wit, but detecting it in an e-mail isn't always easy. If I receive a message saying, "Yeah, brilliant idea," part of me gets upset and wants to fire off an aggrieved reply asking for urgent clarification. Recent research into e-mail communication by an American publication, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, reveals that people think they convey their meaning successfully 90 per cent of the time, while those on the receiving end give themselves an 80 per cent chance of interpreting it correctly. But after pairs of undergraduates were instructed to adopt serious or sarcastic tones in their e-mails, the results showed that their chances of understanding each other were no greater than 50/50.

Working life revolves entirely around managing the impact of people getting the wrong end of the stick. But misunderstandings caused by poorly thought-out, badly phrased or misdirected e-mails may lead not just to veiled threats of violence in the staff car park, but can result in legal action because of the permanent records that are kept of such messages.

Businesses are terrified of the power wielded by their staff while sat at their computers; the speed and informality of e-mail makes us communicate with the kind of reckless language we might use after a long Sunday afternoon down the pub. Notes are hastily dashed off which might end with the words "deal with it", when the actual meaning was "I would greatly appreciate you making this an action point". So, businesses attach disclaimers to the bottom of outg`oing e-mails, absolving them of any responsibility, and compulsory staff training sessions include modules on "how to write an e-mail" in order to further protect against legal action. These may elicit yawns of protest, but it seems that such guidance might actually be useful.

Websites devoted to e-mail etiquette adopt a similarly wary attitude: "If your e-mail is urgent, do not flag it as high priority," reads one, "as your message will come across as aggressive." Meanwhile, employees adopt their own disclaimers in the form of "emoticons", but these are often just as hard to decipher. One former colleague of mine would end every communication - even when she was angry - with the ;0) symbol, indicating that she was chastising us while winking and wearing a cheesy grin and false comedy nose. I hear of budgets being suffixed with the message "thanks, James :D", indicating that James is paralysed with laughter at his figures, while payment requests may be accompanied by "love Becky xxx". Thanks, Becky, I love you too, the cheque's in the post.

A study conducted by Yahoo! a couple of years ago revealed a widespread condition they named "pre- and post-mail tension", where people became fearful of their communications being misinterpreted or forwarded to others. Perhaps everyone should follow the instructions of one etiquette advisor: "Ensure that you revise your e-mail to ensure that all emotions are eliminated." Or, if you're really concerned, you could just pick up the telephone.


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