We use text to communicate more than ever. Discerning emotion from text is now an important skill.

Yet, a new study finds that decoding emails is easier said than done, even if it’s from a friend.

A recent study found that your best friend will find it just as difficult to interpret the emotional tone of your text message as any random person on the street.

The research, carried out by the Journal of Human Communication Research, demonstrates just how many elements of human interaction we lose in virtual communication.

Lost in Transmission: The Essential Element of Human Interaction

Have you ever gone out of your way to explain something in an instant message to a friend? You put in the effort, complete with smiley faces and LOLs.

Then you get a response: “Thanks.” Thanks? That’s it? The ice-queen didn’t even give you a complete sentence. Just one little word punctuated with a cold-hearted dot.

I don’t know about you, but I would jump to the conclusion that they had a bee in their bonnet. I’d feel underappreciated and assume they were angry at me.

Then there’s the infamous dot dot dot which has long since shrugged of its similarity to the ellipses.

“Thanks…” What does it mean? How can tiny little dots hold such suspense? What’s their problem?

The warmest people can come off as cold via text or email. With no intention to, a full stop here or capitalization there can send your thoughts spiraling out of control.

Text-based communication cuts out many emotional cues we rely on when talking to someone. There’s no body language like hand gestures or facial expressions which are vital clues to figuring out what someone really means.

When we talk to someone we rely on their tone of voice to transmit emotion. You can try to express your tone of voice using capitals or exclamation points. But HOW WOULD ANYONE KNOW IF YOU’RE ANGRY or you just left caps lock on? And how angry is capitalized ANGRY? It’s also almost impossible to figure out if someone is being sarcastic or serious.

Comic showing the issues of miscommunicaton in society
Image via @Awkward Turtle World

So, your friend will probably forgive you for not seeming as enthusiastic as you should about your coffee date, but what about your boss?

As working remotely is becoming increasingly more common, some people may never have face to face interaction with their colleagues. Text-oriented communication leaves us wide open to misunderstandings, confusion, and uncertainty. Is our boss as angry as they seem or just busy? There’s really no way to know.

Do Context and Relationships Help to Decode Emotion in Text?

Context plays a huge part in decoding the intent behind an email. And, we should know your friends well enough to avoid miscommunication in texts, right?

Not necessarily.

A series of three studies showed that even if the message is from a friend, you have as much of a chance of understanding their emotion as a complete stranger.  

In the first two studies, participants had to write two emails. Each email was supposed to express a different emotion. One of the emails was based on a certain scenario (like when your team wins a basketball came or when you fail an exam) and the second was freely written by the participant.

The participants rated their emails by completing a questionnaire. It asked them about levels of joy, shock, sadness and other emotions the emails transmitted. It also asked them how confident they were that their friend or a complete stranger would be able to pick up on their tone.

Strangers were sent the emails and then judged each one using the same emotional questionnaire.

In the third study, the participants wrote two emails once again. However, this time they were sent to both friends and strangers. To test the effect of relationship, the receivers rated the emails and sent a response.

The study showed that those who received the emails could make out the basic emotional sentiment behind the emails, but not much more than that. For example, the receiver could tell if the writer was angry, but could not tell if they were a little annoyed or enraged.

Read More: Emotional AI Will Soon see Right Through Your Poker Face

Did Emojis Help?

The researchers found that the writers were more confident that their friends would be able to interpret their emotions than the strangers were.

Similarly, the friends had more confidence in their abilities to understand the emails than the strangers did.

But, confidence did not account for accuracy. This suggested that people are poor at judging their own emotional detection skills.

Emojis were made to solve this problem. You’d think they make it easy for us to express emotion in text.

Interestingly, the study found that non-verbal cues like emojis, capitalization, or extra exclamation marks did not increase the accuracy of the interpretation.

Emojis aren’t standardized, you could be happy on a Samsung, but looking awkward on an iPhone. This makes emotion in text even harder to navigate. Image Courtesy of The Washington Post.

As computer and smartphone-mediated communication become more dominant forms of interaction, we are losing out on facial expressions, body language, and vocal intonation.

We should be wary of our inclination to have too much confidence in our keyboards. We also cannot rely on context or how well we think we know our friends when interpreting emotion in text.

Read More: What to Know About Phone Addiction and Brain Development

Have you had any disastrous miscommunications when trying to convey emotion in text?

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