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Are you kidding me? This is serious! Or, what psychologists have to say about writing e-mail


An old college friend and accomplished writer, John Scalzi, recently posted a list of writing tips for non-professionals, which I'd highly recommend for professionals and non-professionals alike. One of his most unusual suggestions is to "speak what you write" -- literally, to read your writing out loud before publishing, whether in a blog post or just an e-mail to friends. This, he argues, will not only help catch spelling and other errors (each of which Scalzi says decreases the writer's apparent IQ by 5 to 10 points), but also help you see whether you're conveying the meaning you intend.

So what does psychology research have to say about this notion? (No, not that typos decrease your IQ, but the larger idea that reading your words out loud will help you determine if your meaning is clear.)

A team led by Justin Kruger conducted a series of experiments on how we perceive each other's intentions in e-mail, and their findings do have some relevance to Scalzi's claims. One common problem in e-mails is deciding whether your correspondent is being serious or sarcastic. Taking Scalzi's example, most readers will realize that one of his observations was sarcastic: your IQ doesn't literally decrease when you make a spelling error. But what about the advice given by the aptly-named blogger Grumpy old Bookman, who in response to the much-hyped controversy over fabrications in James Frey's memoir, suggested that authors literally make everything up, taking no inspiration from the real world? Most commenters to that post clearly thought he was being serious, but I have little doubt that the post was intended to be sarcasm (I also think he anticipated that many readers wouldn't "get it" -- and that was part of the joke).

But do most writers actually accurately anticipate how readers will perceive the tone of their writing? Kruger's team tested sixty pairs of students at Cornell University, asking each person to choose 10 statements from a list of 20. Each person had a different list; on both lists, some of the statements were sarcastic, and some were serious. In separate rooms, one member of the pair typed each of the chosen statements into an e-mail message. The other member recorded the statements with a tape recorder. Each person guessed whether the message recipient would be able to identify the statements correctly as sarcastic or serious; then they listened or read their partners' messages and indicated whether they actually thought the message was sarcastic. Here are the results:

While both e-mailers and talkers thought most sentences would be read accurately, e-mail recipients couldn't judge whether sarcasm was intended -- their readers guessed their intentions at a rate no better than chance. By contrast, people speaking sarcastic messages were accurately able to guess when recipients would see the sarcasm. Message recipients were also asked to say how confident they were in their understanding of the message, and again, whether reading e-mails or listening to recordings, nearly everyone believed they had accurately judged the message's intent.

So talking appears to be a better way of conveying sarcasm than e-mail. But what about Scalzi's advice -- can saying what you write actually help you better understand how your written message will be taken?

In a new experiment, pairs of volunteers e-mailed each other as before, but before they guessed how their message would be taken, they recorded the statements on a tape recorder. Half of the group read the statements as intended, using a sarcastic voice for the sarcastic statements, and a serious voice for serious statements. The other half read them using the opposite intonation: a sarcastic voice for serious statements and a serious voice for sarcastic statements. Here are the results:

When people read the statements with the same intonation as they intended to convey, they were wildly inaccurate at guessing whether readers would judge the statements' intentions correctly -- in fact, readers again were barely better than chance. But when e-mailers tried reading the statements with the opposite intonation, their guesses as to how readers would perform exactly matched actual performance. So here is a case where speaking what you write does appear to help you understand whether readers will read your message the way you intend it to be read.

Kruger and his team argue that their study demonstrates that writers are generally overconfident about what their readers will understand. While confidence about our writing matches our confidence about speaking, in reality, we're less able to convey those intentions in writing. Amazingly, readers, too, believe they can effectively judge the writer's intent, so the potential for miscommunicating in e-mail is amplified. The research also appears to support Scalzi's claim that "speaking what you write" can improve writing, with a caveat: to better understand the potential for misreading, you should try to read your words using an intonation opposite what you intend.

As for the link between spelling errors and IQ, more research will be needed before a definitive answer can be reached (seriously!).

Kruger, J., Epley, N., Parker, J., & Ng, Z. (2005). Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89(6), 925-936.

Posted by Dave Munger on Cognitive Daily


You may also be interested in:

Manage your e-mail so that it does not rule your workday

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The U2 Method of High-Impact Writing

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The Secrets To E-Mail Nirvana


You crank up your computer every morning, click to your e-mail and--whap!--a slew of messages demands attention.

E-mail can be a great tool, but many misuse it, turning what should be quick, easy communication into a laborious, time-consuming management chore.

"Many people use the inbox as a to-do list, calendar and filing system," says Mark Hurst president and founder of Creative Good, a consulting firm in New York. "File some messages and delete most of them, but without a doubt, don't let anything stay in your inbox permanently."

Hurst says effective e-mail management is built on filters, filing and ruthless use of the delete key.
He offers this distinction to better define the problem: The number of new messages received each day is "volume" while the number of e-mails sitting in the inbox is "message count." The second is the key measure of effective e-mail management.

"A user who gets 100 messages a day may not be overloaded at all if the message count is low," Hurst says. "Conversely, a user who gets ten e-mails a day may be overloaded."

If the number of messages stacked in the inbox becomes too large and difficult to manage, you're overloaded. The e-mail system then becomes a black hole rather than a productivity tool and your output will suffer.

"If overload is the problem, then removing the load is the solution," Hurst says in a special report, "Managing Incoming E-mail." "Here's how to manage incoming e-mail: Keep the inbox empty--clear out incoming e-mails before they pile up or you lose your ability to manage them effectively."

But there's just one catch and, unlike catch-22, it's not the least bit philosophical.

"It may be a simple solution, but it's not easy," Hurst says. "Achieving simplicity--or emptiness, in this case--takes time and continued improvement. It's difficult but better than drowning in e-mails and becoming less effective. Only an empty inbox will allow users to take full advantage of the benefits of e-mail."

The first step is deleting all spam. Never reply to spam because the spammer will know your e-mail address is active and sell it to others at a premium. The result: more spam.

Next, read all personal e-mail from friends or family and save selected messages as needed elsewhere on your computer or print out important notes. It might be a good idea to check your personal e-mail account at work and use it to chitchat and exchange goofball jokes with your lunatic friends while reserving your company account for (gasp) work-related items. Admit it: This would sharply reduce the volume of incoming mail on the company e-mail system.

Hurst says messages should be sorted by date with the oldest message at the top of the list. Each message should be opened and the appropriate action--filing or deletion-- should be taken quickly. This will prevent the accumulation of a 500-message stack in your inbox.
Hurst says newsletters should be read or scanned quickly, but never filed because then you'll have two cluttering up your inbox when the next arrives. FYIs, or non-actionable information such as an answer to a question or notification of an event, should be read quickly, filed if necessary and deleted as soon as possible.

Hurst urges use of the "two-minute rule" for to-dos. If the task outlined in the e-mail takes two minutes or less to complete, even if it means getting out of your chair, do it immediately and delete the message.
If you're way behind in managing your e-mail, Hurst recommends a ruthless cleaning out of the clutter in the inbox to allow users to manage e-mail effectively with just a few minutes work each day. It may take several whacks to get through all the old junk, but once it's cleaned out, it's done and future management of the inbox can be handled in just a few minutes each day.

E-mail arrives throughout the day so it's impossible to keep the inbox empty at all times. Hurst recommends dealing with e-mails as soon as possible after each arrives or setting aside a few minutes several times a day to complete the task.

"Users shouldn't let an inbox go more than one business day without emptying," he says.
Filters will screen out most of the junk. For starters, Hurst recommends setting up your filter to accept mail from everyone in your address book. Suspected spam, including any e-mail containing viruses or unknown attachments, gets sent to purgatory--a folder for suspected junk mail from unknown senders. Any e-mail with three or more consecutive exclamation points gets zapped. Set the filter to automatically delete any e-mail containing raunchy words you'd expect to find in sexually explicit spam.

Have the filter kill any e-mail with "adv" in the message line. Expand the list of subject lines to kill starting with obvious pitches such as "Free Long Distance," "Find background info about anyone," "Quit Smoking" and "Be your own boss." Compiling the list requires some thought because many spam subject lines appear in legitimate e-mail such as free, mortgage, university, diploma and life insurance.
Software will thin the thundering herd of spam seeking to graze and fatten your inbox, but it's not the final, or best, way to manage e-mail.

"'Delete' is one keystroke," Hurst says. "I don't know what's easier than that."

Article written by Scott Reeves© Inc.™

Manage Your Email so that it Does Not Rule your Workday

If you sit at a computer for most of the day, it's tempting to constantly check your e-mail to see what's new.

But that's a time management disaster if you're trying to make progress in your business.

Resist the temptation. Here are some tips to help you get that time-eating monster under control.