Why You Trust Email Way More Than You Should

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You probably don’t have to think very hard to come up with an email-related scandal that happened sometime in the last few years. New Jersey governor Chris Christie stepped in it when his deputy chief of staff emailed, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” We now know that before the financial crisis Wall Street bankers emailed each other that many of the assets they peddled to unwitting investors were “junk,” “monstrosities,” “big old lemons,” and “goat poo.” Two years ago, the Department of Justice released racist emails sent between police officers in Ferguson, Missouri. (One called President Barack Obama a chimpanzee.) Amy Pascal was fired as co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment after an email hack revealed an inopportune racism-to-punctuation ratio and a penchant for trashing high-profile members of the industry. And then, of course, there’s Hillary Clinton’s infamous private email server.

But when Clinton set up a separate email domain and server to use as secretary of State, making it so that not every piece of communication would automatically be officially archived, she may have had in mind a simple fact of human psychology: People are bad at email. As all those other examples illustrate, we’re constantly putting things in email that should not go there. Specifically, things that would be better spoken out loud — if expressed at all — so as to more clearly communicate intent (or avoid political scandal). Even if we don’t make headlines, we’re all vulnerable to our emails reaching unwanted eyes, thanks to hackers, bosses, cops, frenemies, or stray clicks of “reply all.” Email, in other words, is regulated like a physical record, but we treat it as a conversation. And that causes problems small and large.

Especially in the office. You may not realize it, but all of your internet use at work is fair game for your employer to snoop into as long as you’re using their connection — even if you’re using your own computer and your own email account. Indeed, 43 percent of companies monitor employee email, according to a 2007 survey of 304 companies by the American Management Association (AMA) and the ePolicy Institute.

Employers have reason to be wary. In a similar survey of 586 companies from 2009, 6 percent of workers admitted to sending customers’ confidential information to outsiders, 14 percent said they shared proprietary company information, and 14 percent said they shared embarrassing company correspondence. Nearly everyone — 89 percent — admitted to using company email for gossip, jokes, and insults, and 9 percent shared romantic or pornographic material. It’s no wonder that a quarter of companies reported having employee email subpoenaed and another quarter reported firing someone that year for email misuse.

“What I advise clients is, before you send an email, imagine you’re on an elevator with your clients, and your competitors, and your colleagues,” says Nancy Flynn, the founder of the ePolicy Institute and the author of Writing Effective Email. “Would you say it out loud? If you wouldn’t say it out loud, don’t put it in an email message.” Flynn advises companies on email practices and also acts as an expert witness. “Email is electronic DNA,” she likes to say. In a lawsuit, “it’s the first place lawyers are going to look.”

All the dangers of email apply to other forms of electronic communication, too, Flynn says. “Text messaging is nothing more than mobile email. And instant messaging is nothing more than turbocharged email. It’s the same deal. Any risks of lawsuits, record mismanagement, regularity violations, security breaches, PR nightmares, et cetera — if it applies to email, it applies to text messaging and IM as well.”

Flynn emphasizes the importance of a clear and well-communicated corporate email policy. Just having one doesn’t do any good if employees aren’t trained on it and given the reasoning behind it. And rules as to what kinds of language are banned and what counts as confidential information should be explicit enough to be closed to interpretation.

But training is not a firewall against human stupidity, as Liuba Belkin, a professor of management at Lehigh University, observed when she qualitatively analyzed thousands of emails from several organizations for her dissertation. “I was amazed what kinds of things people still put in email, even knowing it’s the property of an organization,” she says. “People have been trained in many organizations in how to behave. They still do the same silly mistakes.”

Or as Sam Biddle, a former writer for the gossip and news site Gawker, who frequently trafficked in leaked emails, puts it: “Most people don’t think of their lives in terms of potential evidence, because, what a burdensome way to live!”

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Why do we insist on treating email discussions like cozy water-cooler chats, instead of formal written dispatches? Mostly, it’s because it often acts as a substitute for the former — email is immediate, similar to saying something out loud. Messages can travel almost at the speed of thought, and so we become less restrained. As soon as you think of that snide quip, you can send it out there, ignoring the possibility of another audience finding it, possibly years later. We also see email as less permanent than pen and paper, because it’s not physical — just an ethereal collection of bits swarming around the cloud — even though a fire can wipe out a file drawer but won’t take down Google’s servers and backup servers.

Nicholas Epley, a psychologist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, thinks many people see email as a less anxiety-inducing form of talking. “I have a colleague, for instance, who sits right next door to me,” he says. “If there were no wall I would be poking him in the eye. And he will send me email about stuff. I love this guy to death, I think he’s wonderful, but he doesn’t want to be rude, he doesn’t want to interrupt.” That fear makes communication inefficient. “And so instead of sending an email to someone sitting on the other side of a wall, I get up and talk to him. It works much better.”

According to Biddle, “We have so many channels to communicate with each other that look mostly alike — email, text message, iMessage, tweet, Facebook IM, Gchat, and on and on — that I think it’s all sort of converging. Emails used to be written like pen-and-paper letters. Now they’re sort of flung around like texts. Short bursts are the norm, unless it’s an email from your grandmother, because she can’t Twitter DM you.”

For all its convenience, though, email often invites misunderstanding. In 2001, Neal L. Patterson, the CEO of Cerner Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri, sent an email to his 400 managers, some of whom found it overly aggressive. “As managers — you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing; or you do not CARE,” it said in part. “In either case, you have a problem and you will fix it or I will replace you.” Someone posted the message publicly, where it was available to 3,100 employees, plus investors and media. The $1.5-billion company lost a third of its value in three days. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Patterson said that the memo was taken out of context and that most employees at Cerner understood that he was exaggerating to make a point.” It’s likely that many of them did not.

The problem is that email is a breeding ground for egocentrism, or our failure to step outside ourselves and take the perspective of someone reading our words. One classic experiment by Elizabeth Newton demonstrates the power of egocentrism. Try this: Pick a song and tap it out on a table for a friend. How confident are you that your friend will be able to identify the song? In Newton’s study, subjects guessed that 50 percent of listeners would get it. Fewer than 3 percent did.

Epley has run several studies on egocentrism in email. In one study led by the NYU marketing professor Justin Kruger, Epley and his colleagues asked participants to write pairs of sentences — one serious, one sarcastic — on various topics and email them to another subject, who would guess which was which. Senders estimated the sarcastic sentence would be misidentified only 3 percent of the time. Instead, recipients got it wrong five times as often. (The authors note that when you send “Blues Brothers, 2000 — now that’s a sequel,” your eye-rolling does not make it through the ether.)

We’re particularly egocentric about writing versus speaking. In a companion experiment, subjects emailed or spoke prewritten sentences, about half of them sarcastic, and predicted a recipient’s accuracy at identifying the sarcastic one. With spoken messages, predicted and actual accuracy were each about 75 percent. But for email, while the predicted rate of success was 78 percent, actual accuracy was only 56 percent. The challenge stems from the fact that email strips away all of the intonation and body language we use to give language added meaning — and without those nonverbal indicators, we often come across as more negative than we intended.

Research has also found that email encourages actual negativity in what we say. In a 2003 paper on conflict escalation over email, the researchers Raymond Friedman and Steven Currall offered several reasons. For one thing, there are fewer social triggers for the norms of civility. For another, it’s harder to empathize with our recipients without seeing them face-to-face, which makes it easier to become more uninhibited with our criticism. Email also allows us to write long messages uninterrupted, encouraging rants without adjustment for the other party.

The effects of this negativity can be severe. One 2006 survey of 192 workers in Singapore found that 91 percent had experienced “cyber incivility” from a supervisor, including transgressions both active (saying things over email that they wouldn’t say in person) and passive (not replying to messages, replacing to face-to-face dialogue with email, and scheduling or canceling meetings at the last minute over email). Both types of interactions were linked to a worker’s reduced commitment to the organization, reduced job satisfaction, increased intention to quit, and increased “workplace deviance” (like slacking off or stealing company supplies). To make things worse, disrespect over email can cause the sting to linger: All it takes to reopen the wound is clicking on the message again.

To avoid causing upset, “Take time to compose yourself before you compose your message,” says ePolicy’s Flynn. And to avoid the risk of coming across as cold, she says, “Never use email to deliver bad news.”

Epley agrees. Too frequently, he says, he’s seen students receiving negative feedback about a grade or exam read it as condescending or nasty. As a result, “I will not engage with a student to talk about exams or grading or anything of that kind over email,” he says. “They must come to my office and talk to me in person.”

But little details can sometimes ameliorate the coldness of the medium. Belkin notes that a simple “Hi” before the recipient’s name, for example, adds a human touch. And Flynn says that while emoticons come across as unprofessional, many people use them strategically. “I was not a fan of them early on,” Epley says, “but it’s something that I certainly do now.”

Still, even with those little extra flourishes, Epley’s more recent research suggests that relying on email instead of conversation doesn’t just beg for misunderstanding — it can make you seem less human. For a paper in Psychological Science, he and Juliana Schroeder, a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley, videotaped 18 MBA students giving a short pitch about themselves to prospective employers and also asked them to put a pitch in writing. Then, over a series of studies, a team of professional recruiters and untrained volunteers rated the videos, the audio tracks, the video transcripts, and the written pitches. Both the candidates and third parties predicted that the written pitches would be received as well as, or better than, the spoken pitches. But the opposite was true — the transcripts and written pitches made the candidates seem both less capable and less likable than the video or audio, and as a result, the candidates were rated less hirable. Schroeder and Epley suspect the key factor was the absence of changes in vocal tone and cadence: “Just as variability in motion serves as a cue for biological life,” they wrote, “so too may variability in voice serve as a cue for a lively, active, and capable mind.”

In a follow-up paper, the two researchers reported that when people read someone else’s writing out loud as they heard it in their heads, they use an unnaturally monotone speaking voice. Further, this lack of intonation can make text read aloud sound as if it were written by a computer and not a human. “That is, the voice that you imagine from some anonymous person, the voice that you put onto their email, is one essentially of a mindless machine,” Epley says. You don’t want to sound like a mindless machine, do you? Pick up the damn phone.

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Notwithstanding the pitfalls of email, it has its advantages over conversation (besides its huge convenience). “For women, email is actually a better medium,” Belkin says. In group discussions, women are often not willing to speak up, and when they do they’re interrupted. Same goes for people lower down in the office hierarchy. But email helps level the field, allowing for more dissenting views and creative contributions that might not be shared face-to-face. Overall, everyone becomes a little less conformist. In addition to the benefits of social distance, temporal distance allows people to think through their ideas a bit more before sharing them, and to pay attention to others’ ideas when they come up.

Belkin also notes that sometimes an (electronic) paper trail, one of email’s greatest liabilities, is desirable — if, say, you want to prove that you actually did send a colleague a report, a request, or a warning. We may treat email as a conversation, but its real benefits are in the ways it differs from what conversation can do.

Its downsides can be explosive — as when an embarrassing message goes viral, or a harassing one leads to a lawsuit. But they can also be invisible. If someone takes your email the wrong way, you might just not hear back. A potential relationship goes poof without a peep.

Email norms (and laws) are still unsettled, but it’s clear that success in life will require mastering the fluid use of multiple media — text, email, phone, FaceTime, coffee chats. Still, even as people strategically add emoticons and other personal touches to their email arsenals, sometimes LOL is no substitute for LTOL — let’s take this offline.

Why You Trust Email Way More Than You Should