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Who's to blame in the flame game?

Readers misinterpret the tone of an e-mail message about half the time, according to a new study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. But people think they've correctly interpreted messages about 90 percent of the time, the study found.


"That's how flame wars get started," University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley told Wired. Epley conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University.

Part of the reason for the problem is that people are too self-centered, Epley told the magazine, and aren't very good at seeing how their messages might be misunderstood.

Clearly, we all need to use more smileys. (For the curious, the tone in that last sentence was "sarcasm.")

Blog community response:

"I have seen this in action on more than one occasion. Without the facial and verbal cues that the voice and face provide, it is sometimes difficult to determine sarcasm and emotion. There needs to be a good way to fix this 'problem' in email."

"Supposed email etiquette expert Nancy Flynn needs to check her own egotism. Flynn's statement that 'People write absolutely, incredibly stupid things in company e-mails' could easily be tinder for a nice little flame war. Oh wait, maybe she didn't mean it that way..."

"But what I notice is that most people have a wider tolerance for ambiguity in messages when it comes in their inbox. They understand - more than the two researchers care to acknowledge - that e-mail communication has a specific nature, and that most of the time an e-mail message is not a self-contained statement but is part of an ongoing conversation - which makes possible subsequent clarifications and rebalancing if something was misinterpreted or misstated."
--Lunch over IP