Can You Trust Email Body Language?

December 2, 2011

Steve Tobak wrote an article in CBSNews.com called, How to Read Virtual Body Language in Email.

Steve makes some interesting observations. But, like so many attempts at teaching us “how to read” body language, Steve makes several assumptions that miss the highly contextual, and highly tenuous nature of interpreting emotion via email.

In fact, email is often used by people as a way to avoid emotion or intimacy. It’s an example of asynchronous communication: an email message could take an arbitrary amount of time to compose, and it could be sent at an arbitrary time after writing it. Thus, email is not a reliable medium for reading one’s emotions. It’s hard to lie with your body. It’s much easier to lie with a virtual body. With email, you don’t even have a body.

Damn That Send Button

Actually, I wish I could say that I have always used email in a premeditative, calculated way. I have been guilty of sending email messages in the heat of an emotional moment. A few too many of those emails have lead me to believe that the SEND button should be kept in a locked box in a governmental facility. And the box should have a big sign that says, Are You Sure?

People often make the mistake of assuming that a given communication medium provides a transparent channel for human expression. Oddly enough: email can bring out certain negative qualities in people who may not be negative in normal face-to-face encounters.

People don’t take into account the McLuhan effect, and assume the message is determined only by the communicators. Steve says this about flame mail:

“You probably don’t need me to tell you this, but when you receive what we affectionately call flame mail – where someone lets loose on you in a big, ugly way – that’s aggressive behavior. In other words, they’re acting out like a child throwing a temper tantrum and it’s not about you, it’s about them. I know it’s tempting to think it’s just a misunderstanding, but ask yourself, why did they assume the worst?”

But it’s not just “about them”. It’s also about the medium – an awkward, body-language-challenged medium.

Also, people can feel “safe” behind the email wall (meaning they know they won’t get punched in the face – at least not immediately). ¬†There’s something about the medium that can cause people to flame – EVEN if they are not normally flame-throwers. Jaron Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget¬†gives a good explanation for how and why this phenomenon occurs. Read the book, even if you don’t always take Jaron seriously. He is brave and bold, and he challenges many assumptions about internet culture.

Everyone has stories about email messages they wish they had never written, or email messages they wish they had never read.

It’s wise to understand how media mediates our interactions with each other. That is an important kind of literacy: a literacy of understanding media effects.

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