‘Email has a lot of really toxic elements to it’

Our new reliance on texts and emails cuts across human evolution in a profound way. What are the costs of losing the primacy of face-to-face interaction?

Email drawbacks: “Confusion surrounds how emails should be structured, what salutations are appropriate, levels of formality and so on.” Photograph: iStock

Email drawbacks: “Confusion surrounds how emails should be structured, what salutations are appropriate, levels of formality and so on.” Photograph: iStock

 

The written word hasn’t been this popular since the Enlightenment. Texts, tweets and emails have become the preferred channels for so many connections we make with others. Email has become the primary tool for communication in most business and professional settings.

Yet our new reliance on texts and emails cuts across human evolution in a profound way. Our brains are wired to interpret the look and sound of the human sitting across from us. With email, all of that is lost.

From an evolutionary perspective, written communication tools are not preferable. The human brain is wired to interpret the look and sound of the person during communication.

Email is still in its infancy, relatively speaking, so it is not entirely fair to compare it with long-standing methods for interpersonal communication. The problem, however, is that in the modern world, entire professional relationships can be based on email communication.

“The social mores that accompany language and communication skills are often lacking in email communication,” says Dr Liz McLoughlin, psychology lecturer at Dublin City University. “There are no ways to gauge the recipient’s demeanour, mood or other salient pieces of nonverbal communication that one immediately appraises in an interpersonal context. Furthermore, confusion surrounds how emails should be structured, what salutations are appropriate, levels of formality and so on.”

Language and evolution
Although language development is more frequently associated with social and cultural trends, it was also guided by evolutionary imperatives.

“At birth, newborns have an immature visual system, but can see objects about a foot away, which tends to be the approximate distance between the breast and the mother’s eye line,” says McLoughlin.

“Research has consistently shown that within hours of birth a newborn shows preference for the mother’s face and also prefers human voices to other sounds. Moreover, they can discriminate between their mother’s voice and those of strangers and are quite adept at imitating facial expressions.

“Indeed, all of these behaviours are driven by a biological predisposition to maximise the care and attention that is required, physically, cognitively and emotionally within their environment. Thus, from an early age, we are genetically primed to use an array of communication strategies that will ensure our successful growth and development.”

Other studies suggest how important it was to survival for early tribal groups. “There was a huge evolutionary advantage to having a unique language system as it helped distinguish friend from foe, in-group from out-group,” says Dr Art Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin.

“Past research has suggested just how much of our brains are given over to this. Over time, some argue that language has developed in such a way to be optimised when two people are communicating face to face in real time. The further away you get from that ideal situation, the more difficult communication will become.”

So when talking on the phone, we miss the face-to-face aspect. Tools such as Skype, although better, are still somewhat stifled by time delays and poor reception. “Writing creates almost the worst-case scenario because you’re not communicating in the same place or at the same time,” says Markman.

Real-time clarification

In a face-to-face conversation we can negotiate issues, ask questions and get clarifications in real time. “Plus there is the addition of back-channel feedback – listener responses that can be both verbal and nonverbal, which help to keep communication flowing,” says Markman. “Nonverbal cues and body language play a major part in the complex dance that communication is all about. As soon as stuff gets written out, you lose all that.”

If you misunderstand the tone of what someone says in an email, you don’t have the luxury of being able to stop for clarification. “People can get very angry about something written that might have been completely innocuous,” he says.

When speaking directly with somebody we are more likely to try to create an agreeable conversation but are much more prone to saying something inflammatory from a distance.

“People break up by text because they don’t have to see the reaction of the person on the receiving end,” says Markman. Likewise, people say things in emails they would never say to someone directly. Put all that together and you’ll find, from a communication perspective, email has a lot of really toxic elements to it.”

HOW TO PUT A FACE TO AN EMAIL: WITH GREAT CARE
Language is essentially a tool created to assist communication. Like any other man-made tool, it will continue to evolve depending on the needs of those using it.

“There are already various examples of the adaptation of language to overcome the limits of email communication,” says Prof Art Markman from the University of Texas. “Emojis and emoticons, while not always appropriate, can serve to add context and/or emotion. Then you have simple adaptations such as the use of all caps to indicate screaming.

“All of these bring more of the characteristics of face-to-face communication into email,” he says. “The evolution we are likely to see will be the tool adapting to the structure of our brains and not the other way around.”

Now that email is a central component of the modern business environment, why isn’t formal training in its effective use as tool for communication more widely available?

Dr Liz McLoughlin, a psychology lecturer at Dublin City University, thinks it might be time to consider that. “Some of the factors that could be contributing to poor-quality communication by email might include insufficient learning, either implicit or explicit, that could serve as a guide to how email communication should be conducted in a variety of different social circumstances,” she says. “Email is just another tool, which we have yet to learn how to use appropriately. Given how ubiquitous it has become, it’s worth considering making it part of the primary and post-primary school curricula.”

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