Lack of vocal inflection in texts and email

The bane of my existence

Earlier this year, in a story on enigmatic email, the Wall Street Journal shared an awkward exchange between a consultant named Jill Campen and her boss, Marty Finkle. Campen sent a detailed email outlining a broad business strategy on a Thursday, only to get a one-word reply from Finkle the following Monday: “Noted.” Dismayed at the brevity, Campen replied again to ask Finkle if he was mad at her. It took a phone call to clear the air and establish that, far from upset, Finkle was pleased to clear the matter from his inbox so quickly and confidently.
“Emoticons and exclamation points only do so much.”

We’ve all been Jill Campen and Marty Finkle at times: struggling to convey our emotions over email (or texts or tweets), and struggling to interpret the emotions of others. The difficulty of expressive writing isn’t new, of course, but what’s relatively recent is the overwhelming amount of electronic exchanges we have with people whose personalities we only know digitally. Without the benefit of vocal inflections or physical gestures, it can be tough to tell e-sarcastic from e-serious, or e-cold from e-formal, or e-busy from e-angry. Emoticons and exclamation points only do so much.
So we’re bound to make some wrong assumptions on both sides of the ether, and as behavioral scientists have found over the past few years, boy do we. The evidence has also given researchers a better sense of why we suffer so many digital communication breakdowns (short answer: we’re selfish) and what we can do about it (short answer: make some face or phone time).

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