Why text-based communication is confusing

Photo courtesy of FreeImages.com/Rajesh Sundaram
Photo courtesy of FreeImages.com/Rajesh Sundaram

We’ve all seen it before, whether it was through a text message to a friend or an email to a coworker. Somehow — despite our best efforts — a message gets misunderstood, misread, or misfiled, and leads to trouble. It’s been the subject of more than a few jokes, and we all agree it happens. But the simple question is, why?

Talking is something humans are really good at. During a simple conversation, the average person processes both words and tone of voice to figure out what is being said, then — when it’s his or her turn to talk — uses that information to come up with an appropriate response. This may seem pretty humdrum for most of us, except we’re able to do all of this while only pausing about 200 milliseconds between people talking.

And there’s a lot more to what’s being said than the words. When we speak, we say a lot through nuances in the tone of our voice. We can tell if someone is smiling just by hearing their voice, and studies have found we can recognize negative emotions through tone of voice even better than through words or facial expressions. We can even predict whether a relationship will be successful based only on the tone of people’s voices.

So what happens when we try to write? Well, it turns out we lose a lot of context when we try to translate our thoughts to writing. When we try to send emails or texts, people misinterpret the tone a lot. Sadly, the result is a reading where the tone is interpreted as neutral at best, or negative at worst.

Over time, many people have found ways to get around this, especially at work. To minimize the risk of an email being misinterpreted as offensive, many employees add additional sentences in their email. Unfortunately, this also leads to problems. Adding too many qualifiers and sentences to an email lengthens the email itself substantially — which is no small problem, given the average manager is getting over 120 emails per day. The long wind-up to asking questions also risks coming off as passive and wishy-washy. As a result, many employees are finding their emails are answered by management with short, one-sentence answers… if they’re answered at all.

While the solution long-term is to understand the different communication styles of each individual in your life (and try to adapt accordingly), there’s a remarkably simple shortcut: speak to them. Talk directly to your coworkers and friends about your concerns, about what you’re working on, about anything. The subtleties of vocal communication will help clear up any potential misunderstandings you may come across.