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New Article Offers Tips On Expressing Emotions In E-mail

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Daniel A. Menchik and Xiaoli Tian of the University of Chicago) have published a new study in the current issue of American Journal of Sociology on how we use emoticons, subject lines, and signatures to define how we want to be interpreted in email. They found that

" …… a shift to email interaction requires a new set of interactional skills to be developed."

The paper "Expressing Emotions In E-mail So As Not To Be Misinterpreted", University of Chicago Press Journals, 28 November 2008, offers insight into E-mail communication strategies. E-mail differs from face-to-face conversations because it lacks body-language, tone of voice, and context and therefor there is a heightened risk of misunderstandings. Menchik and Tian conclude that difficulties exist in all forms of communication and that no way of communicating is superior to another.

Menchik and Tian suggest that each form of communication requires a distinct interaction strategies.

"People can cultivate ways of communicating in online contexts that are equally as effective as those used offline. "The degree to which … individuals develop unique conventions in the medium will determine their ability to communicate effectively."

They point to "the case of a well-known scientific organization that decided to replace occasional meetings of a research panel with ongoing email interaction." Numerous problems were encountered but the organization, and several strategies allowed people to deal with those problems. The panel encountered numerous problems conversing via email. But the researchers identified several ways people were able to overcome these barriers.

"People innovate in response to the challenges of a new context for the communication of essential elements of language".

The strategies use capital letters, use of quotations, emoticons, exclamation points, punctuation, bullet points, style and color to help the sender communicate the meaning of a word or message. For example, "I feel betrayed" reads differently from "I FEEL SO BETRAYED!! ;)" where the capital letters and winking smiley face indicate sarcasm.

Conversational flow is maintained by cutting and pasting from previous emails and using subject lines from previous messages. By doing this comments can be directed to a particular individual in a listserve and keep the exchanges stay on topic.

Menchik and Tian found that participants communicated more effectively when they knew something about each other, like the information included in a signature. As an example the frame of mind can help orient the reader: "I wrote this at 5AM" or "on a blackberry while on vacation".

Eudora’s MoodWatch program, a linguistic monitor, tries to indicate to the sender that their email might be considered inflammatory, and to the receiver that they are about to receive such an email.