Email Hell

EMAIL HELL….The New York Times reports that university professors are increasingly wary of the steady stream of email they get from their students:

These days, they say, students seem to view them as available around the clock, sending a steady stream of e-mail messages ? from 10 a week to 10 after every class ? that are too informal or downright inappropriate.

“The tone that they would take in e-mail was pretty astounding,” said Michael J. Kessler, an assistant dean and a lecturer in theology at Georgetown University. ” ‘I need to know this and you need to tell me right now,’ with a familiarity that can sometimes border on imperative.”

Kessler’s observation gibes with the results of a small research project (via Trish Wilson) suggesting that most people don’t have a clue how they come across in email. From Wired:

“That’s how flame wars get started,” says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University.

….The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers.

Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time.

“People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they ‘hear’ the tone they intend in their head as they write,” Epley explains.

And I’ll bet that 50% number gets even worse when the sender is, um, emotionally stressed. That’s why I always told people who worked for me to never write email when they were angry ? or even merely annoyed. Never. Do it in person or over the phone, or else just wait to calm down. No matter how angry you are, you’ll come across as ten times worse than you mean to when you express it via email.

What makes it worse it that email has an all-too-frequent habit of becoming public, as Boston lawyers William Korman and Dianna Abdala recently found out. The Globe has the entertaining story here. Consider it fair warning.