Written in an email, the sentence “Thanks for your charming reply” can be either a sincere statement or a stingingly sarcastic slap in the face. Who’s to say? Certainly not us. We’re always getting into trouble when we try to write kind and caring cyber correspondence. It’s all about intended tone and its wrong-headed interpretation. “That’s how flame wars get started,” says University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley. And recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which we subscribe to, shows we’re not alone in being misjudged.
The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers. Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time.
And have a nice day.