E-Mail Miscommunication: Blaming the Medium

Warning: Potential grumpy old man rant ahead.

I saw this article today on slashdot all about how e-mail communication leads to misunderstanding. It’s an old argument I’ve heard before, and while I’ve seen it in action a number of times, I still don’t buy it.

One of the arguments most often touted is that e-mail has no “tone of voice”. This is true, but neither does any form of written word. None of the novels I’ve read have a tone of voice either (excluding audiobooks), but if the writing is clear, it’s a non-issue. The article discusses a lack of facial expressions in email. What? Even if that were true (which it is not, actually), I fail to see the relevance. Write clear, and you will not be misunderstood. On the other side of that coin, don’t read things into an e-mail that are not clearly there. If it seems ambiguous, whatever you think it means is probably wrong.

You really can’t blame the medium for the message. People today generally have poor written communication skills. Writing an email should be no different that writing a letter. The last actual letter I recived from a friend is still tacked up on my desk. It’s well written, clear, concise, and in a style quite similar the longer e-mails she sends. The quick, one liner e-mails are a different matter. We all send them. Sometimes they are unclear. When they are, the best thing to do is to ask for clarifacation, not go off and assume the sender is attacking you.

Sure, I had a few bad experiences at first with e-mail. I said some things that were widely misunderstood. I got involved in battles that didn’t need to exist. Everyone does this, but there is no reason for it to happen more than a few times. I learned to save a draft, move on to something else, and reread the e-mail later. If anything seemed ambiguous I would fix it before sending. I don’t still do this, but I did learn a lot of lessons about the types of mistakes I was likely to make. I’m more likely to avoid those now. I just assume everyone will misunderstand everything I say, and I rewrite to try to make that more difficult.

People need to take the time and reread what they wrote. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth saying clearly. It’s really not that hard. If rewriting for clarity is something that you do have an issue with, learn to love the emoticon, it might save a friendship or two. Remember, you have no idea how long the person on the other end will keep that e-mail for. That right there should be enough to make you think before you click send.

Perhaps the real problem is more to do with a misplaced sense of entitlement. Many people who have e-mail take it for granted. The fact that you can communicate with anyone in the world almost instantly holds no sense of wonder anymore. I saw it happen. I may have missed the start of Eternal September, but watched the downward spiral and knew where it was heading fairly early on. The medium is not the issue, it’s how it’s (ab)used.


  1. Dursin says:

    Well said, Jay. I know we’ve had this discussion before. I think that people do read into things in e-mail, and they do blame the medium itself, but they are pretty much scape-goating. But I must say, I hate emoticons, too. To me, they are a little childish and shouldn’t be necessary if people would just stop and think before they react.

  2. Jay says:


    That’s your choice. To me, going on the Internet and refusing to use emoticons (an accepted form of communication that predates your presence there*) is similar to entering a house in Japan ignoring the tradition of removing your outdoor shoes.

    * If you were online pre emoticons, feel free to disregard this.

  3. Emie says:

    You might want to check your spelling, I almost use your article for my short essay and presentation as oe of my sources, but I found that there are a few misspelled words.