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Jun 28, 2006



I read this paper when it came out and it struck me pretty hard to see those numbers. Actually (no ironic background) I send it by mail around ... ;)
Now I know people I have to keep contact with mostly by email and I tend to use smileys and emotes and such to make clear what mood I'm in, where I'm coming from. Now one of them is really bad in making jokes. Or in other words, the jokes are so double edged he offends people when just writing them down.
But refused to understand it.
I asked him several times to please use smileys or something like that if it was a joke. He refused, smileys are stupid for him.
Finally that even lead to a break-up. He had made a joke by mail, I misstook it and was offended and replied it sounds offending. He replied I just should imagine a smiley at the end. And when I answered something along "Than just put a smiley there." and he refused again I decided to stop the whole thing.
What I try to say is that I'm well aware how easy mails can be missunderstood but I agree with Nate here, smileys and emotes and such help so much to minimize the failure. But what if as in such a case one refuses to use them? I read some time ago Richard who writes here too isn't using smileys too. If you are understood the right way, your intention was delivered/percieved correctly, everything is fine of course. But if someone is telling you its not clear and that repeated times - shouldn't it be part of the netiquette to change your stance?
I read at some page about rules for writing email and there was one of them saying "Don't use smileys, it makes you look ludicrious". Of course a business mail is one thing but this was referring to mails in general. As long as rules like this are handed out and (it seems to me) especially guys have trouble using smileys and emotes, text-communication is quite a problem.
I was missing this in the study the paper is referring to too: what was the gender mix and did they check on use of emotes or such too.


I'll go with the view that most people are just tremendously inadequate writers. I'd venture that over 80% of people communicating through email either lack elementary writing skills or are just lazy (though I cannot see where laziness would account for repeated errors). Sure, there's the occassional misspelling, typo, or awkward phrase (case in point), but if it weren't so sad I would almost find amusing the daily correspondence I receive that reads as though penned by a grade-schooler.

Now ... feel free to pick apart my comment. I'm sure I've sufficiently set myself up for the fall.


I don't disagree with you, Chip, but I don't believe that's sufficient to account for the high frequency of offense-taking. There also seems to be a bizarrely large number of people who are bound and determined to choose the most negative possible interpretation of what they read.

I think I can see several contributing factors:

1. Communicating "tone" purely through text requires effort, even for talented writers. But expending so much effort in every steenkin' word just doesn't seem worth it when you do a lot of online writing.

2. Most people whose online stuff we read are perceived as neither personal friends or authoritative sources. So (the feeling is) it's safe to react negatively to anything they say, to assume the worse possible interpretation of any comment.

3. Some people seem to want to be offended, as though any disagreement with their cherished beliefs is a threat that must be crushed.

4. Some people are just jerks no matter what their mode of expression. But they taint communication for everyone else.

5. Some people are better at face-to-face spoken communication than written communication, and resent losing their edge when online because text favors those who are better at writing than speaking. "Taking offense" puts others on the defensive.

I guess I come to the conclusion that it's not really text that's the problem -- it's that people who wouldn't normally encounter each other do so more often online.

Textual spaces just happen to currently be the most accessible medium for such encounters. As graphical places become more popular, I expect we'll seeing the same kinds of willful "taking offense" behaviors happening there through visual communication as we've seen to date in textual communication.

Not because there's anything inherently distorting about either textual or visual communication, but simply because some people just aren't interested in disagreeing with civility in any medium.



It takes a tremendous amount of either natural gift, years-long-practiced skill, or painstaking editing to craft text-only messages that communicate tone well. Smileys and their ilk are a shortcut that works well in the medium of email where great effort is not usually expected to be expended.

Writers with the talent or skills not to need smileys may create guides eschewing their use, and lead less adept writers to follow the rule without the reason.

I use smileys a lot when I'm chatting in games. I'm far too busy trying not to get my teammates killed to think about tone :) I also tend to want to put in stage directions like *shrugs* or *stretches* but only do that if I'm with roleplayers or people I know -- shy, I suppose. If I'm with strangers I omit the actions, or use the /emote command occasionally.

Now for a case study of sorts. In the paragraph above, I used a sentence and followed it with a smiley: "I'm far too busy trying not to get my teammates killed to think about tone :)" In order to have omitted this smiley and still communicated the tone I wanted, I'd have to think of a more exaggerated way to phrase it. This would take time and effort - which I probably would have expended while writing the above paragraph, if I hadn't wanted to leave the smiley in for purposes of THIS paragraph. So now let's see.

What if I wrote: "My mind is multitasking: reading chat, reading injuries taken and inflicted, noticing who in my team is injured or under attack, planning my next move, checking my resources readied and expended; only a sliver is available to communicate my thoughts to my teammates, so I embrace the shortcut of the smiley." That's more serious but it communicates more clearly what I wanted to say, without a smiley seeming called for.

If I wanted to retain the humor, I'd have to use details, and I'd lose the game-neutrality; it'd become more accessible only to those who play the same game I do. Maybe I can come up with an imaginary game, that seems to work: "It's already a ludicrous situation; I'm swinging a staff to bash eight foot tall flubbers into the ground, headbutting them into a daze, in between handing round the fruitcake to my teammates for the energy and endurance buffs it gives -- if I stop and compose a literate sentence, I'd just get us all smashed into buttercream. I might as well use the smiley and save the brain cycles for the next team combo opportunity."

See? I'm fully capable of writing something that communicates tone without using a smiley (unless I'm just being egotistical ;) ) but it isn't always worth the effort. X-D


A few brief comments.

I believe email is fundamentally different from other forms of communication. It combines the spontaneity and convenience of spoken communication with the limitations of written communication.

I found it interesting that the study concentrated primarily on sarcasm. Sarcasm is a form of communication that is particularly troublesome in written communication, since it relies on a sentence structure that is ostensibly laudatory but which, either through the listener's knowledge of the context of the speaker or cues from the manner of delivery.

Written communication is poor at indicating the latter and the recipient of an email (or forum post) may not have the contextual knowledge to derive the former. So, of course, the study resulted in high rates of miscomprehension on the part of email recipients.

I'm not sure that 'egocentrism' is necessarily the right way to categorize the phenomenon. Rather, it may just be problems with user expectations from the email modality. Since email in some sense feels like conversation, users have a default expectation that conversational techniques function equally well in that mode. And the paper demonstrates that, when users reread their sarcastic email in a non-sarcastic manner, they predict the likelihood that the email will be understood much more accurately.

It seems simplistic to just blame everything on poor writing skills. It depends on whether you define writing skills simply as grammatic competency or broaden it to consider tasks such as conidering your written communication's audience. Certainly, a skilled, thoughtful writer, who proofreads his email and takes care to consider how his words might be read by the eyes on the other side of the wire, will be more effective at communicating his thoughts.

But the convenience of email also results in a vastly higher frequency of use. I was considering the use of the "Inbox" metaphor that email programs use. My Inbox contains about 200M of email at the moment. That's around 200,000,000 characters or perhaps (50,000 words * 5 letters per word on average == 250,000 characters) or 800 books worth of (often useless, highly redundant) information I've received in the past 2 months. If my email Inbox were an actual inbox, it would be stacked about 30 feet high.

Writing well takes time. How could an effective writer read, much less respond thoughtfully, to all that information? On the other hand, that amount of information is closer in volume to just the 'conversational buzz' that I've physically been present around for the past 2 months.


I agree with Chris that, in focusing on sarcasm, the study seemed a bit intent on proving--as opposed to earnestly testing--the degree of miscommunication that goes on in email, but the overall point is an important one.

Personally, it's the smiley face issue that resonates most with me. Jacra mentioned an incident with a male friend who refused to use emoticons. My own observation is that their use very often falls along gender lines, as we try to enact certain expectations. Smileys may be seen as playful, but rarely manly.

As a woman, I often have a hard time judging how to "appropriately" represent myself in my email tone. Smiley faces are hardly acceptable for professional letters (article pitches, for example)--which of course isn't a gender issue in and of itself. But it seems to me that to be misunderstood as a man is somehow less damaging than as a woman. Since social expectations dictate that men should/can be strong-willed and opinionated, if your sarcasm gets taken "the wrong way," it's not so bad--at least not as bad as being seen as "bitchy" because you're statements don't come with "lol"s to soften the blows. With men, we tolerate a larger degree of harshness.

Beyond being female, I'm just a goofy person. But online, that's just too easily misunderstood. Alas, it's easier to become the largely un-goofy girl you see (read) before you, who uses words like "alas."

And as for being better writers... Well, that wouldn't hurt, but first we really need to work on what defines better writing (Don't expect anything but cynacism from me on that front. Spend a day wading through a publishing slush pile and you'll know what I mean). More importantly though, I think we need to work on being better readers.


Most people's writing skills simply aren't as good as their ability to speak *because* they rely on non-verbal cues to assist. I'm not just referring to people who don't use any uppercase letters, or think the , is the ', or even people who mix up your, you're, their, they're, there, it's, its (or recently threw v through). People don't know how to use less formal punctuation to *stress* things, to replicate the tone of a conversation.

And there's been somewhat of a loss of prior techniques for on-line communication. How often do you still see the asterixes example above used by the upcoming generation? It's more about "ROFLCOPTER" and "!!!1!!1!!ONE" or assorted painful SMS contractions like "ur" than about trying to recreate real-world communications in the limited bandwidth of a text channel.

But maybe the problem is that people mis-interpret *all* communications. Face-to-face you can tell if the other person is being mean or nice. Via email, if you can't understand what's being said, you don't know what the tone is.


And then, people just screw up, like I just did when I forgot to sign that comment. ^_^;;


I would think that the better a communicator you were person-to-person, the worse you would be in pure text. A good communicator learns to use tone, inflection, rate of speech, pacing, pauses, etc. to be eloquent. When losing ALL of those things at the same time, the odds of occasionally assuming that ONE of them would carry through text is pretty high I'd say. Really all you can do to express humor with text outside of slang and smileys is to describe things that are funny even in emotionless terms (which I find amusing, by the way).

As for people being bad writers, yes, that's true... and it's the medium that causes it. When I was being eddicated :), spelling and grammar mattered every time I wrote something. Why? Because my teacher was going to read it and she wouldn't tolerate poor spelling and grammar. When I got older, anything outside of a scribbled note got proper spelling and grammar too, since it was probably going to be around for a while.

In short, it's the non-permanence of text chat and e-mails that has lowered the standards of writing. Why put so much effort into something that's going to scroll off the top of the screen in a minute or so and never be seen again?

I don't even want to think how this has affected the poor English teachers (though I find that thought amusing also, by the way).


In short, it's the non-permanence of text chat and e-mails that has lowered the standards of writing. Why put so much effort into something that's going to scroll off the top of the screen in a minute or so and never be seen again?

Interesting counterpoint: I log all of my IM conversations using Trillian, and I keep all of my email conversations using Gmail. Which means they're permanent, for me. (Granted, this was so before I used either of these programs; I saved chats and was loathe to delete emails.)

But I also use my bestgrammar, diction, etc. when blog-posting, commenting, emailing, IMing, etc.

I've found, however, that I'm very willing to accept a bad writer if the ideas conveyed suggest something worthwhile about the person. Throwing lols at me just annoys me, but if I'm running off the basis that you're a smart guy, then it's not so bad.

However, there is also the issue of feedback. In face-to-face, the feedback is instantaneous: rocking back on heels, eyes widening, mouth opens, silence, glares, winces and cringes, head shaking...

With emails and IMs, that feedback is voluntary. Instead of permitting your body to instinctively respond to a hurt by showing a face describing the emotion, you have to explicitly state, "That hurt."

These "social cues", as you would have it, are learned in face-to-face as much as they are in text. I have learned to reflexively respond, "Hey!", to invasions of my perceived "space".


You really log all that stuff? Wow. I guess I got used to the reality of a full e-mail account forcing me to delete stuff.

Also, I have a kind of feeling that logging all of my IM's would be like walking around every day with a tape recorder in my pocket. As for my part, I choose what I say in face-to-face and IM conversations based on the assumption that it isn't going to be around long. Not that I'm ashamed of what I say, but I tend to speak in as personal terms as possible.

On the other hand, I save everything having to do with our development team. Michael, do you mean that you save casual conversations as well?


Part of the problem is that most people regard e-mail as something to be fired off quickly, as compared to a letter which might require more time and effort.

I wonder if technology isn't going to make the whole issue obsolete. With regards to online gaming games like Battlefield 2 or Dungeons and Dragons Online with their built in voice chat clients are probably the harbingers of things to come. In a decade or so "LOL" and ":)" may be as quaint and archaic as Morse code.


I'd say so, since there are already programs like Teamspeak for games without integrated voice channels.


Chip>I'll go with the view that most people are just tremendously inadequate writers.<

While that might be true, it isn’t a good explanation for the results of the study. Three out of the five experiments involved people sending pre-written statements, not their own constructions.

Jacra> smileys and emotes and such help so much to minimize the failure<

Subjectively, I would agree with you. But the experimenters note in their final discussion that a test with and without emoticons didn’t change the overconfidence results. They don’t say if emoticons increased communication accuracy though. I would be interested to know if my subjective assumption that they do is backed up by experiment.

I don’t much like the term “egocentrism” to describe the cause. Perhaps it has a specific meaning in that psychology literature. The experiments just seem to be specific case of the general human tendency to overestimate how closely the model of the world in their head corresponds to the model someone else is using.

A similar case of written miscommunication I am intimately familiar with is computer manuals. The intent is purely factual communication, not emotional. But it is strikingly hard for someone with a good functional model of a system in their head to convey a written explanation of how to use it to someone who has a dysfunctional model of the system in their head. When you are doing face to face training, its easier to let the trainee play around with the system and see what errors they make. Then you can deduce what model they are internally working with, and correct that.

The most encouraging part of the reported study was the degree to which forcing participants to read statements in the opposite tone eliminated the over confidence. Must try that with my next few emotion laden emails *grin*.


Jim> I'd say so, since there are already programs like Teamspeak for games without integrated voice channels.<

Hehe. People can be way overconfident in their Teamspeak communications too. I doubt if Leeroy Jenkins internal predictions about how his famous utterance would be heard was anything like the actual outcome.


I wonder how much this is based on expectations, for example I expect to be annoyed or offended on most web forums (especially worldofwarcraft.com) I visit, same for many IRC or game based chat clients. How did this expectation arise? Have I learned such expectations, or is it a matter of experience? Is this because text is an imperfect medium, or is it that the internet is still anonymous in most respects?

Oh I've noticed that business emails have increasingly contained emoticons, sure, it is by no means standard yet in my experience, but it does occur frequently.


"I'd say so, since there are already programs like Teamspeak for games without integrated voice channels."

Sure, but I'd say that integrated chat is a step more advanced. It's inconvenient to have to tell people who join your party to run out to TeamSpeak server xyz. It's much easier if anyone who joins your party automatically joins your voice chat channel. And eventually it may be possible for MMOG's to simulate the real world where only players whose avatars are "close" to your avatar can hear what you're saying.

"Oh I've noticed that business emails have increasingly contained emoticons, sure, it is by no means standard yet in my experience, but it does occur frequently."

I'm thinking of a future scenario where e-mails are no longer typed out as text but rather consist of voice recordings people send back and forth to one another. Or at least where e-mail consists of text captured via a voice transcription program.


Doh, what I meant to say and forgot was that in games where voice chat is integrated into the game itself my experience has been that it quickly becomes the norm. In contrast TeamSpeak was something that was only employed by guilds.

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