Are we taking work emails too personally?

Most people have misinterpreted an email or text at some point, and the shift to remote work has only made it more likely that misreading an email will lead to bad feelings between coworkers. Think twice before you flame your colleague! So why do people tend to assume the worst in written communications, and how can we keep from feeling offended?
Angry man looks at computer screen
Think twice before you flame your coworker!

Disrespect or unintended meaning?

There is actually a scientific phrase for “assuming the worst” – it’s called “negative intensification bias.” In other words, there is a very human tendency to read non-existent negative intent into communications, or to blow any slight negativity out of proportion.

Last year, researchers looked at how this bias impacts our email communications at work. Given that the average office worker receives at least 200 emails per day, it is perhaps not surprising that the majority say they sometimes receive disrespectful or offensive emails. But how much of that disrespect is simply in the eye of the beholder?

Polite wording not always the key

In the study, almost 300 employees who use email regularly provided the scientists with an example of an email that had caused them to feel negative emotions. But when the researchers asked objective observers to look at the same messages, they were much less likely to rate them as negative.

So what caused the recipients in the study to view the emails as negative? Obviously, a message containing a personal insult or an F-bomb does not make anyone feel great, but many of the emails that the employees read as negative were, objectively speaking, extremely polite – “We acknowledge that our request has a very short timeline and certainly appreciate that you are very busy.”

Workplace dynamics color our perception

If it’s not an openly hostile message that’s causing a negative interpretation, what is the problem? The study found that the corporate culture of the organization and the relative power of the sender and recipient could be more important than the actual wording. If negative communications were the norm in the company, then a civil message was more likely to be seen as negative. And if the email sender was above the recipient in the company hierarchy, a negative interpretation was also more common.

This brings us back to the usual problem of electronic communication – the lack of face-to-face contact. There is no way to pick up on nuances of tone and expression or clear up misunderstandings as they happen. So when reading their emails, the employees drew on other clues like the general mood in the company or their own lower status. When it was possible to read an email in different ways, this led them to a more negative conclusion than an outsider without such feelings.

Not enough etiquette – or too much?

Another unexpected cause for their offended reactions emerged in the study – that we are so sensitized to the rules of proper business etiquette in emails that we have little tolerance for a hastily written message that does not check all the boxes for politeness. As the researchers noted, “The participants’ explanations for why an email was seen as negative often cited rules for appropriate email behavior.”

How to avoid being offended by coworkers

It seems like the best solution is some common-sense advice: Give your coworkers the benefit of the doubt. Even a writer who is aware of the pitfalls of email communication might still overlook a potential cause of offense. And sometimes they might just be in a hurry to get through their emails so they won’t be late picking up their kids. Try to read the email impartially instead of reading things into it. If you still feel disrespected, however, it’s always better to start a conversation (in person if possible) and ask for clarification than to fire off an angry reply. Instead of making accusations, tell them how their message came across and see what they have to say: “I was surprised by how you phrased your feedback…”

The authors of the study also had some advice for companies that provide communication training to their employees: Highlight the role of the recipient as well as the sender. The hope is that making people aware of our general tendency to negative interpretation can keep unnecessary workplace conflicts from flaring up.

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