Department of Psychology
Did you hear the one about the two professors who walked into a bar? The third one ducked…. I know. I know. I can hear you groaning now. Silly me. I love that joke. But, I didn’t write it for that reason alone (though I might do something like that). Rather, I wrote it to make a point. Did you know I had started a joke? If so, how? If not, did you find yourself suddenly concerned for my welfare? More so than usual? (Did you know that I meant that as a joke?)
Why should you care? Well, it turns out, we humans don’t communicate nearly as well as we think we do. In a series of intriguing experiments, Justin Kruger and his colleagues (2005) explored some of the limits of our communicative abilities. Generally, we have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which people understand our expressions and we simultaneously have a tendency to overestimate our ability to understand others’ communications. They found that this problem becomes particularly pronounced across email communications, i.e., communication where we don't see the other person. To simplify, they found that senders well overestimated the extent to which recipients would realize they’d written a joke in an email. And, on average, recipients well overestimated their ability to perceive jokes and humor sent via email. Thus, people often failed to realize that someone had sent them a joke. Likewise, people often failed to realize that the implicit joviality of their email had not translated across the electrical medium. Jokes and sarcasm met in one nasty accidental brawl.
So, when communicating via email, we don’t do so well. We think people know what we mean and we think we know what other people mean. And, here comes the kicker, we respond in kind. We get angry because a colleague, friend, or professor has sent us this ridiculously mean or sarcastic email, when in reality we never realize they’d intended their statement as a joke or gentle prod. Moreover, the colleague, friend, or professor has no idea that we, the student perhaps, missed their joke and that we’ve responded angrily because we misinterpreted their email.
What does this mean for you? As modern academics we do a tremendous amount of communication without direct interaction. As we move through the summer months, many of us will probably communicate with our peers and students via email more often than usual. Work like Kruger’s suggests that we regularly fail to convey and perceive the jovial nature of communication. We know we’ve told a joke. Surely the recipient knows it too. Moreover, it shows we frequently misinterpret others’ attitudes and emotions that they express to us via email and that we rarely realize we’ve misinterpreted the communication. We know how we would feel if we wrote that; they must feel the same way too. All this work suggests that we should work harder to explicitly state the nature of our communications. When we make a joke, we should preface our statement with a disclaimer noting as much. Moreover, when we receive ‘one of those’ emails from students and we think, ‘they can’t possibly mean that seriously,’ perhaps they don’t! We should ask others what they meant. We should work to clarify our communications as much as possible. And, I suggest, we should cut each other a little slack. We should assume the best in our colleagues and students. We should suspect that the angry note or stunningly awkward statement reflects the inadequate medium of email as communication rather than attributing it to a lack of character on the other’s part. After all, someone needs to pick us up after we walk into that bar....
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, 925–936.