Overconfidence at the Keyboard: Confidence and Accuracy in Interpreting E-mail Exchanges

Author(s), Title and Publication
Riordan, M. A., & Trichtinger, L. A. (2017). Overconfidence at the keyboard: Confidence and accuracy in interpreting affect in E-mail exchanges: Confidence and accuracy in E-mail. Human Communication Research, 43(1), 1-24. doi:10.1111/hcre.12093

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) as an internal communication tool has created efficiencies, but in part, at the expense of building whole and rich relationships. Making up for the lack of face time, writers use shorthand, punctuation, and even emoticons, as a way to encode their messages with affect and emotion. Looking for affect, readers interpret the individual messages they receive, not as part of an overall communication process, but as meaning-making and context-building opportunities. While CMC is widespread in organizations, and there’s a great deal of research on how readers and writers intend to convey affect using CMC, little is known about how accurate writers are in conveying their emotions, and likewise, how accurate readers are in grasping it. To address this gap, this study ran three experiments (N=50, N=50, N=70) to examine the relationship between accuracy and confidence in CMC among friends, and when there are both verbal and nonverbal variables present.

This research reveals that while writers tend to believe friends will be more able to correctly interpret their affect, intent, and tone, friends are no more accurate translators than strangers. Nonverbal communication cues are highly-effective in person. Arm crossing, distance-keeping, eye contact, pursed lips, and stern facial expression, are efficient ways of communicating affect and emotion in person. Translated via CMC, these nonverbals appear in the form of punctuation, extended/shortened reply time, and abbreviation and become less accurate representations of the writer’s affect and emotion, and ultimately, less impactful. Likewise, verbal indicators, such as enunciated speech, raised voice, and voice inflection, which appear in the form of capitalization, or reduced font in CMC are remarkably effective in person, but do not carry the same weight via CMC, as they tend to be less accurately interpreted by readers. Ultimately, regardless of confidence, friendship, verbal, or nonverbal cues, writers tended to be inaccurate, and overconfident about the ways readers were to interpret their writing, while readers tended to be poor judges of their own accuracy and believe CMC included more emotion than the writer intended.

Implications for Practice
Organizations should (1) make strategic use of CMC as a tool for positive, accurate, and specific information so the reader is not left searching for hidden meaning, (2) be aware that employees attach negative emotions to negative wording though it may not be intended by the sender, i.e., use sentences such as “Be sure to” instead of “Please do not,” and (3) when drafting CMC, leave as little room for interpretation as possible, remove sarcasm, and inference from CMC as much as possible, increase reader and writer accuracy and confidence to the extent possible, and write CMC messages with a new audience in mind.

Location of Article
This article is available online at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1468-2958 (abstract free, purchase full article)

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