Friends no better than strangers at interpreting emotional tone in emails

"The loss of this subtlety could lead to consequences in many forms," said researcher Monica A. Riordan.

By Brooks Hays

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 30 (UPI) -- Think your friend can recognize the subtle sarcasm in your emails? New research suggests familiarity with an email's writer doesn't help a reader correctly identify the intended emotion.

In a series of tests, researchers at Chatham University found friends were no better than strangers at accurately identifying the author's intended emotion in email text.


Scientists first had study participants craft two emails, one based on a specific scenario, the other without constraints. Email authors filled out a survey identifying the presence or absence of eight distinct emotions in each email. Strangers read each email and responded to the same emotions survey.

A followup experiment saw the email test repeated, this time with both friends and strangers as readers. Both writers and readers rated their confidence in their ability to communicate and identify emotions prior the exercise, and most participants were very confident. Their perception had no basis in reality, however.

The results showed a person's confidence had no correlation with the ability to accurately identify the presence of emotion in the email text. Furthermore, friends were no better than strangers at interpreting email emotions.

"As e-mail, text messaging, and other forms of computer-mediated communication become more dominant forms of interaction, the communication of affect becomes more difficult, primarily because facial expressions, gestures, vocal intonation, and other forms of expressing emotion are lost," Monica A. Riordan, a researcher at Chatham, said in a news release.


"It is clear from this study that readers can determine that we are angry, but cannot determine HOW angry," Riordan continued. "The loss of this subtlety could lead to consequences in many forms -- especially in our relationships, where the difference between annoyance and rage can be vast, and a simple misinterpretation of an intended emotion can lead to a drastic alteration in that emotion."

The new research was published this week in the journal Human Communication Research.

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