Daniel “Emotional Intelligence” Goleman’s op/ed piece this week “E-Mail Is Easy to Write (and to Misread)” (New York Times, Oct. 7, 2007, image by Stuart Goldenberg) came at a time when I’ve been particularly plagued by email mis-communications. Even people I thought knew me rather well — including knowledge of my continental, offshore, and international reputation as a troublemaker and verbal prankster, my penchant to use hyperbole to show mock shock, and my longstanding, stubborn, well-known, refusal to use emoticons to warn of the use of irony or humor — have been inadvertently insulted (on their own behalf and that of their God-of-Choice) by messages sent with neither rancor nor ill intent.
by the lavish praise
I imagine getting
a few words
I would like to take back
……………………… by John Stevenson
“phone message” – Geppo, Sep/Oct, 2006
“empty bottle”- Quiet Enough (2004)
Goleman, who taught us that EQ is often more important than IQ, last year gave us Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. He says:
“New findings [in social neuroscience] have uncovered a design flaw at the interface where the brain encounters a computer screen: there are no online channels for the multiple signals the brain uses to calibrate emotions.
“Face-to-face interaction, by contrast, is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us not only from their tone and facial expressions, but also from their body language and pacing, as well as their synchronization with what we do and say.
“Most crucially, the brain’s social circuitry 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.
Goleman explains further that: “In contrast to a phone call or talking in person, e-mail can be 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.” Even worse, “there are ways in which e-mail may subtly encourage such trouble in the first place.”
- “we tend to misinterpret positive e-mail messages as more neutral, and neutral ones as more negative, than the sender intended. Even jokes are rated as less funny by recipients than by senders.”
- “Sitting alone in a cubicle or basement writing e-mail, the sender internally “hears” emotional overtones, though none of these cues will be sensed by the recipient.”
Of course, it didn’t take the fancy new field of social neuroscience for people to realize the downside to email communication. See, for example, this decade-old discussion, in a piece of email etiquette advice, from I Will Follow.com.:
“Part of the nature of a good one-on-one conversation is the use of visual cues. How important are facial expressions and body gestures to a conversation? A simple eye movement can mean the difference between “yes” and “YES”. What about auditory cues? The results are the same.”
Similar notions were put forth way back in the Second Millennium, by The Southwest Colorado Interactive Learning Network (SCILnet) Project, which explained in Webmail Lesson #11 what the problem is and the purported solution:
“One of the problems often cited with e-mail is that you lose the ability to add any feeling to your message. To overcome this limitation, some users add symbols called “emoticons”. Emoticons are a very clever use of standard punctuation marks to express a human emotion. When viewed sideways they resemble facial expressions.”
The I Will Follow Netiquette guide offers the same explanation for “smilies” or emoticons:
“Since there are no visual or auditory cues with e-mail, users have come up with something called “smilies”. They are simple strings of characters that are interspersed in the e-mail text to convey the writer’s emotions (cues). The most common example is :-). Turn your head to the left and you should see a happy face (the colon are the eyes, the dash is the nose and the parentheses is the mouth).”
What neither the early netizens nor Dr. Goleman bother to acknowledge, of course, is that this lack of one-on-one feedback has existed for as long as we’ve had written correspondence. Whether the medium is pen on paper or pixels on a screen, a written message by definition lacks visual, auditory and (except for those perfumed letters of yore) olfactory clues. Before this old coot gives up his sense of pride and verbal mastery and starts using or recommending emoticons [or the even more annoying jpeg smilies] as a normal part of email correspondence, I’d like to give and see more thought on why email does a poorer job than traditional letters in conveying the meaning and feelings of the writer. (Could it be that we tended to know the recipients of our personal longhand correspondence better than those who get our emails, and who we may well only know through cyber relationships?)
Feel free to use our Comment section to voice your opinions. I’m willing to bet that — as with most situations where quality falters — much of the problem is a failure to give adequate time and attention to the task at hand. For now, I’m going to do my best to make sure that my email correspondence avoids unintended insults, perhaps with an occasional added parenthetical phrase that makes my intentions clearer. In addition, I hope all my email correspondents — as well as readers of this weblog and of my comments throughout the blogiverse — will keep in mind my well-intentioned Statement of Implied Disclaimers. And, as with most human endeavors, lets initially (even you lawyers out there) try to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
p.s. Daniel Goleman introduced most of us to the notion of EQ, in his 1996 bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. (well-reviewed here; click for a quick recap of the “Four Components of Emotional Intelligence“) I’m still amazed at how many otherwise-sensible people are willing to overlook or excuse the emotional immaturity and ineptness of a colleague, friend or family member (and the harm it causes other people), if the low-EQ is attached to a significantly high IQ — and, especially, if accompanied by a large bank account or a powerful position. I think having a high IQ makes the failure to appreciate, nurture and develop ones EQ rather inexcusable.
from a stranger
a dry straw
in a dry cup
no last words
……… by John Stevenson
“phone message” – Geppo, Sep/Oct, 2006
“a dry straw” – Upstate Dim Sum (2006/II)
the wind tries to deliver
all of the postman’s letters
the wind lifts
……. Matt Morden from Morden Haiku
after the quake
adding I love you
to a letter
crackling beach fire —
we hum in place of words
we can’t recall
…………………………………….. by Michael Dylan Welch
only a dead fly
in the mailbox
after the search for meaning bills in the mail
……………… George Swede from Almost Unseen (Brooks Books, 2000)
the emails come
……………………… Hilary Tann – Upstate Dim Sum
the words of his letter
darker and darker
waiting for him to tell me
what i already know
he pours his coffee
afterthought (Oct. 17, 2007): I just ran across this apparently serious report on Emoticon Literacy (which looks at differences in emoticon usage and understanding between groups that differ by age and by pattern of computer/internet usage), and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.