Writing down an instant message or a quick email is a quick way to communicate, but the written word can easily be misinterpreted. Our brains are wired to assume the negative, which means the receiver might assume an underlying tone or meaning that just doesn’t exist.
A survey by the Loom communication platform of more than 3,000 office workers found that 91% had experienced misunderstood or misinterpreted digital messages at work, and for 20%, the misinterpretation led to them being reprimanded, demoted or even fired.
“Language is inherently complex,” says Senka Hadzimuratovic, communications manager at grammar platform AI Grammarly. “It’s even more pronounced in a business setting where you’re constantly dealing with competing priorities, multiple stakeholders, and time constraints. When we take into account the increasing complexity of asynchronous and remote work – and as we write more in more contexts – misunderstandings are inevitable.
Remote work has only increased the amount of written communication we have each day. These quick face-to-face check-in conversations are now done via email and Slack. Research of Grammar and the Harris Poll found that employees spend nearly half of their workweek on written communication alone.
“The shift to a more fragmented and dispersed workplace has exacerbated these challenges. As we work more asynchronously and across more channels and systems, it creates more opportunities for miscommunication,” says Hadzimuratovic. “While tools such as collaboration platforms help to understand the ‘what’ of communication, ‘how’ we interact effectively in this landscape is much more difficult and essential to address.”
Dr. Betsy Dalton, an assistant professor of communications at Middle Tennessee State University, says email, texting, and Slack platforms are “lightweight” communication channels. “[They are] low on the kinds of nonverbal cues we use when communicating in person to convey meaning,” she says. “These cues include gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, pitch, posture, eye contact and even timing.”
In contrast, face-to-face conversations or video calls allow more layers of meaning to be conveyed between and among parties. “Aspects of a message such as emotion, tone, urgency, or sarcasm can be more easily conveyed in these communication-rich channels,” says Dalton.
Are emojis the right solution?
Using lite channels removes context, and a simple question that was meant to mean one thing could be interpreted in a completely different way. To adjust, 47% of respondents said they overthink the emails and messages they send. To avoid misunderstandings, they add extra words, punctuation, and emoticons to add context and clarify the tone.
“The possibility of misinterpretation is always there, especially when someone can’t see your facial expressions and the emotion attached to the statement,” says Loom CEO Joe Thomas, who uses the term “Slack -splaining” to describe the practice of overexplanation through digital. written communications to ensure that there is no misunderstanding. “There’s an impulse to add a smiling emoji, an exclamation point or other positive visual stimuli to convey the tone. This happens even more often at work when someone feels their livelihood is at stake. . »
Often people explain themselves out of fear rather than real need. In the Loom survey, more than half of respondents say they constantly dread typing or saying the wrong thing, and many find themselves pondering and rethinking the sender’s intent. Ninety-three percent felt the need to write multiple sentences to fully explain something, 82% felt the need to use additional punctuation like multiple exclamation marks, and 77% felt the need to use emojis.
“It’s a critical indicator of work-life imbalance and increases the risk of worker burnout,” says Thomas. “We’ve found that employees stress too much about their communication, and any added stress will take away not only the job an employee can do, but an employee having a positive work experience overall.”
Rereading or overthinking emails and instant messages takes time and impacts productivity. The same goes for having to resolve a confusion after a misunderstanding or miscommunication on a digital platform. In the Grammarly poll, 76% of business leaders agree that they and their teams spend too much time and energy resolving communication issues.
“Slack-splaining is indicative of larger communication challenges exacerbated by hybrid working and employees’ desire to be understood as intended,” Hadzimuratovic says. “Companies can better support and empower employees by investing in tools that help them feel more confident in their communication and give them insight into how others might interpret their writing.”
Choose the right communication tool
Thomas suggests matching the message with the right platform. If you feel a strong need to add emojis or additional punctuation, consider whether a face-to-face method, such as live or recorded video, can avoid confusion.
“Finding the communication tools that match your personal style as well as your team’s needs can help avoid so many problems and make the workplace a more productive and enjoyable environment overall,” he says.
But you don’t have to ditch emojis entirely, says Dalton, who says they add context in written communication. “I think they absolutely have a place in today’s digital workspaces,” she says. “Without the freedom to use these communicative shortcuts to convey meaning, employees may find themselves producing emails and other messages that are too long to ensure their meaning is understood at all levels. But the context account. Overreliance on emojis in place of actual content can seem unprofessional, dishonest, or even juvenile. It takes time and careful observation of cultural norms within teams and organizations to find the happy medium where they really are. useful.”