Why e-mails more frequently emotionally derail

An interesting article in the New York Times describes how the lack of emotional cues can quickly escalate emotions or cause e-(mis)communication. Daniel Goleman quotes Clay Shirky, an expert in analyzing e-communication. Shirky points out that emotional valence that we pick up through tone, body language, pacing of speech, etc., enables us to moderate the tone of our communication to defuse emerging tensions in conversations. E-communication, which is flat on emotional valence, is often misperceived by the reader and hence there is no corrective feedback loop. A new field of social neuroscience is emerging to study these dynamics.

Goleman observes that: “E-mail…has a multitude of virtues: it’s quick and convenient, democratizes access and lets us stay in touch with loads of people we could never see or call. It enables us to accomplish huge amounts of work together.” But e-mail is “emotionally impoverished when it comes to nonverbal messages that add nuance and valence to our words. The typed words are denuded of the rich emotional context we convey in person or over the phone.” That starves our brain’s “social circuitry” which “mimics in our neurons what’s happening in the other person’s brain, keeping us on the same wavelength emotionally. This neural dance creates an instant rapport that arises from an enormous number of parallel information processors, all working instantaneously and out of our awareness.”

The likelihood that e-mails derail emotionally is reduced among people who know each other better, but Shirky analogizes e-mail communication between two healthy adults as having the emotional deafness of two Asperger’s Syndrome patients who are fully sane and logical but lacking in emotional connection.

And the article highlights two ties with social capital. First, that increased e-mail use in organizations, while ‘efficient’ tends to drop the quotient of routine friendly greetings. Saying ” ‘Hi,’ it turns out, really does matter; it’s social glue.” And second, Shirky notes that in globalizing firms, there really is a need to come together periodically for several days to forge social bonds across the globe. This increases the chance that when someone in the Singapore office gets something from someone in the London office that there is someone else in the Singapore office that actually knows the sender and can either help the recipient interpret the emotional valence or to intervene and help smooth over emotional flaps that develop.

The full article by Daniel Goleman, “E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and to Misread)” (NYT, 10/7/07) is available here. The article also alludes to an article to be published April 2008 in the Academy of Management Review by Syracuse’s Kristin Byron, at the Whitman School of Management, called “Carrying Too Heavy A Load: The Communication and Miscommunication of Emotion by E-mail” that concludes that e-mail increases conflict and miscommunication.


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