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Digital Miscommunications — and How to Avoid Them

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

With nearly all of our daily communications now taking place through one digital channel or another, it's more important than ever to ensure that you're getting the right point across. We don’t have access to non-verbal cues, including tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions, that give us valuable emotional context when we’re discussing things in person. Over email, text, Instagram comment, etc. your intended message could be lost due to a misspelling, punctuation choice, or emoji use. The Harvard Business Review out together a guide to 10 common digital miscommunications and how to avoid them. Read our favorite tips from the guide below and see the full piece here.

Realize typos send a message Typos reveal that we were in a rush or heightened emotional state when we hit send (or that we’re the boss, and don’t need to care about typos). Researcher Andrew Brodsky describes typos as emotional amplifiers: if Mollie sends Liz an angry email filled with typos, Liz will imagine Mollie hammering out that email in a blind rage and perceive the message as really angry. Even if you’re in a rush, it’s best to spend those extra two minutes proofreading your work, or better yet, read it out loud to catch any typos your eyes quickly skip over when reading it in your head.

Emotionally proofread your message. Typos are not the only thing you should be proofing your messages for. Brian Fetherstonhaugh, the Worldwide Chief Talent Officer at The Ogilvy Group, told us that he frequently asks employees if they have ever successfully defused an emotional issue via email. The answer is inevitably no. But when he asks the same group if they’ve ever inflamed an issue via email? “Everyone puts their hand up,” he said. Always re-read what you’ve written before hitting send to make sure your message is clear and conveys the intended tone. Sending “Let’s talk” when you mean “These are good suggestions, let’s discuss how to work them into the draft” will make the recipient unnecessarily anxious. It’s easy for one-line emails or slack messages to be perceived as passive aggressive in tone. Imagine how you’d feel if you got a message that said, “Per my last email, just following up” or “Help me understand.”

Punctuation marks matter even more for one-word or very short sentences. Responding “Okay.” with a period can come across as more negative in tone than “Okay” without a period. Adding a period adds a finality to your statement and heightens the negative emotion. It can communicate, “This conversation is over” rather than “Okay, sure, we’re in agreement.” As you get to know someone, pay attention to their punctuation style. You may find there are people you work with who always add periods after the word okay, and so you can stop overanalyzing their punctuation.

Use richer communication channels when you’re first getting to know each other. We’re most likely to interpret ambiguity as negative when we’re texting or emailing with people we don’t know well or with more senior colleagues. Say Liz emails Mollie, whom she knows very well, “Your email to the editor could have been better.” Mollie will take the email at face-value. But if Mollie receives the same email from her boss or a new colleague, she may feel anxious, and think that her email was so egregious that she’ll never be allowed to email an editor again. Using video conference when you begin working with someone new helps build trust. In general, seeing each other’s facial expressions will allow you to better read between the lines, chit chat, and develop genuine relationships. After you know the person, you can use email more frequently.

Default to video in general, when you can. At Trello, a project management software company, if even one person on a team works remotely, the group will jump on a video call; this ensures everyone feels included and makes it less likely for information to be lost. Studies show that around 65% of communication is non-verbal. When you’re not on video, you’re missing emotional cues that come from facial expression and body language. We acknowledge that video won’t always be possible, but it’s best to make it a habit when you are able.

Don’t panic. If an email makes you enraged, anxious, or euphoric, wait until the next day to write back. Even better, talk face-to-face when you’ve calmed down. Once you’ve calmed down, you’ll be able to better articulate your emotions, and the needs behind your emotions, rather than just your immediate reactions. When you do reply, re-read your draft through the other person’s eyes. It might be easier to imagine how your reader will interpret your email if you first send it to yourself. (Additional tip: always leave the “To:” field blank until you’re ready to hit send; a friend of ours lost a job offer because he accidentally sent out a half-baked salary negotiation email).

Avoid email when you need a “yes.” An in-person request is more than thirty times more successful than an emailed one. Research shows people see email asks as untrustworthy and non-urgent. If you do enter into an email negotiation, it helps to first schmooze in person, over video chat, or on the phone. In an experiment (titled “Schmooze or Lose”) that pitted MBA students against each other, half were given only their counterpart’s name and email. The other half were shown a photograph of the other person and told to talk about hobbies, job plans, and hometowns before negotiating. Seventy percent of the first group was able to reach a deal, compared to almost everyone in the second.

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