Being human over email

I’ve always felt that interacting over email/IM adds a layer of indirection that subconsciously obscures the fact that you’re communicating with another human being on the other side.  When you’re emailing someone, you aren’t able to observe the hundreds of subtle and not-so-subtle non-verbal cues that occur in every short face-to-face conversation.  I think that’s why it can make difficult news less difficult to deliver, and hard conversations, well…less hard to have.

Until today, I’ve never stopped to consider how the person on the other side felt.  Is bad news less bad?  Probably not.  Can one get a sense of the sympathy that the sender is expressing in an email?

How does email affect honesty?  Does it make it harder to tell if someone is lying?  The NYTimes Well blog mentions a study about email and honesty:

Researchers at Rutgers and DePaul Universities studied how e-mail influenced communication among 48 graduate students. In the study, they told students they had $89. Each student could then divide the money any way he or she liked and give a portion to another person whom they didn’t know.

The students used e-mail or pen and paper to divvy the pot. In describing the amount of money to be divided, students using e-mail lied more than 92 percent of the time. In comparison, about 64 percent of the students using pen and paper lied about the pot size.

Among those students who lied about the size of the pot, the students using pen and paper were more generous. On average, students using e-mail claimed the pot was $56, and they offered the other person $29. Pen-and-paper students said they had $67 to share and offered the other person $34.

So the conclusion was that students lied more, and told bigger lies if they were using email over pen and paper.  My take on it is that email feels even less personal than writing something on pen and paper.  This leads to less of a feeling of accountability when using email as the medium for communication.  It would have been even more interesting if they did some trials with face-to-face communication.

That doesn’t mean that we should outlaw email.  As with other advances in technology, it can make us more efficient but also has the danger of removing a bit of humanity from our day-to-day lives.  Remember, friends: Emails don’t kill people; people kill people!

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October 7, 2008. Tags: . Uncategorized.

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