Did You Mean That? How to Write Clear Texts and Emails


Without body language and vocal inflections, digital communication can easily be misinterpreted. When we rely only on a keyboard, expressing ourselves can become difficult. Body language plays a huge role in how we understand each other and this is rendered moot when we aren’t speaking face-to-face. Meaning can be sent and received in-person without using words at all. A sour face, a slumped posture, a pair of shifty eyes, a cracking voice, a middle finger. All of these typically are communicated without a single utterance. Needless to say, if you didn’t think so already, nonverbal signals are an important aspect of effective communication.

The Importance of Body Language

There is a 55-36-7 theory that 55% of communication is credited to body language, 36% to a tone of voice, and 7% to words spoken. This theory has been debunked many times over in recent years. Even the author of the study, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, acknowledged that the numbers are the result of a controlled experiment and therefore shouldn’t be used to reflect every real-life situation. Each person is unique in the ways they express themselves, meaning an exact formula may not fit each case.

Our ability to portray and recognize nonverbal signals are so deep-rooted that it happens unconsciously. There was an experiment involving couples waiting in line to buy movie tickets. Researchers approached the women who were with their partners and were  asked such “neutral” questions as, “what is your favorite city and why?” While others were asked about more personal matters like, “what is your most embarrassing childhood memory?” The aim of the study was to test whether the personal questions would be seen as threating to the woman’s partner and how the partners react. The men didn’t do anything aggressive but they displayed nonverbal signals of defense without realizing it.

Miscommunication in the Digital Age

Technology has undoubtedly made communication faster and more accessible. Through email, texting, and handy-dandy apps it is now possible to communicate with people across the world. However, they’ve also made communication less accurate. In the absence of nonverbal signals, it can be tough to determine what the other person is feeling and what their intentions are.

How do you feel if someone responds to your message with “K”? (The dreaded “K”). Generally, this single letter response is considered rude. However, if it’s from someone you are close with, you’d feel less hostility compared to receiving it from somebody you don’t know all that well.

Texts can be easily misconstrued by the recipient

In one experiment participants emailed 10 statements to a recipient. They were a series of serious and sarcastic statements. The senders anticipated that 78% would be able to identify the intended emotion. However, the recipients only identified seriousness or sarcasm 56% of the time. The same statements were then transmitted through a voice recording. The accuracy of identifying the intended emotion jumped to 73%. This is because vocal tones captured the emotional nuance that email couldn’t.

“If comprehending human communication consisted merely of translating sentences and syntax into thoughts and ideas, there would be no room for misunderstanding,” stated Jason Kruger of New York University, the lead researcher of the study. “But it does not, and so there is.”

What Can We Do?

Use your voice – Nothing beats talking to someone face-to-face. That way, you are able to see the nonverbal cues a person is displaying. 42% of adults prefer in-person communication over digital forms. If you are unable to meet, you can speak to them over the phone or through video calls. This will already reduce the chances of any misinterpretation significantly.

Be extremely clear – Most miscommunication, especially in the workplace, results in unclear messages sent to co-workers. In order to avoid this quite literally spell things out. Be very clear in saying exactly what you expect from the other person. Sacrifice precision for accuracy.

Think positively rather than negatively – We tend to dull positive messages and assume the worst in questionable ones. When we assume that the sender has good intentions, we end up having less anxiety about confusing texts and can help avoid a lot of unnecessary arguments.

Unconscious bias – When faced with unclear messages we tend to fill in blanks with our personal thoughts and opinions. Become more aware of this unconscious bias which can affect our emotions and how we interpret something.

Ask for clarification – Before reacting to a message don’t hesitate to ask for more information if something seems vague to you. Avoid guessing and ask!

You can expect that the influence of digital communication will only grow in the upcoming years but it doesn’t mean that the essence of effective communication will completely be lost. Be clear, and make sure to take your time in understanding what others may be trying to say rather than jumping to conclusions. If you’re really lost in the digital world a great way to clear things up is to talk face-to-face.


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