Study: People think their emails are twice as funny as they really are

Think that email you’re sending off to your coworker is pretty funny? According to a recent study (PDF link), the odds are that she’ll find only half as funny as you do.

A trio of business scholars ran an interesting experiment: They took a bunch of people and had them write emails in various tones of voice, including “sarcastic” and “funny”. Then they sent them to a handful of recipients. It turns out that the recipients were frequently unable to correctly read the tone that the writer intended: Only 56% were able to accurately figure out that an email was sarcastically phrased.

Things fared even worse with humor. The email writers were asked to compose a funny email, and to rate it on an ascending scale of 1 to 10 — both in terms of how funny they thought it was, and how funny they predicted their readers would find it. On average, the writers rated their own hilarity level at 8.16, and predicted that readers would find them a laff-a-rific 7.27. In reality, the stone-faced recipients thought the emails were only 3.55 funny.

Obviously, there are a couple of conclusions here. Either a) people are crappy writers; b) people are crappy readers; or c) a subtle mixture of the two governs all online communiations, ensuring that we have no clue what the hell anyone else is trying to say. Nor is this problem solely limited to email; as the authors note:

Although our focus here has been on e-mail miscalibrations, we believe that the overconfidence we have documented here likely characterizes a wide range of rapidly emerging media types. Chat room, instant messaging, text-based gaming environments — all have been touted for their superiority to asynchronous text media such as e-mail because of the dynamic nature of the discourse and ability to provide rapid feedback … In fact, we suspect the synchronous and rapid nature of these mediums may actually increase the rift between senders and receivers. [italics in original]

Heh. World of Warcraft chat-channel trash-talk — now there’s a medium of rigorously crafted prose.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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