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The Secret Cause of Flame Wars 389

Mz6 writes "According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I've only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they've correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time. "That's how flame wars get started," says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University. "People in our study were convinced they've accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance," says Epley. 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."
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The Secret Cause of Flame Wars

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  • by TripMaster Monkey ( 862126 ) * on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:23AM (#14705489)

    Sadly, Slashdot readers have known this for years.

    Kids, this is why it's so important to properly use your <sarcasm> tags and your emoticons!
  • Paranoia in theory (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Neo-Rio-101 ( 700494 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:27AM (#14705513)
    Just goes to show that you should never assume that anyone is mean or out to get you, or react in such a way... or they will become VERY SOON!

    Self-fulfilling prophecies, anyone?
  • 2 Rules: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:30AM (#14705544)
    1. Use emoticons and know how to read them.

    2. When there are 2 ways to read something, assume the other end didn't want to offend you unless you have very good reason to assume they did (i.e. when the flame war is already running to the joy of the general audience).

    Then again, if everyone knew those 2 rules and took them serious, trolls would probably go out on the street and set fire to real life objects... Maybe the world's better the way it is.
  • No surprise... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PornMaster ( 749461 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:31AM (#14705550) Homepage
    That much of communication is non-verbal is quite known. When it comes to business communication, it seems like the treacherous part of this is that so many people are using e-mail and IM for informal communication, and insert so much of our personality into our messages. They're simply not nearly as professional as letters were in the past.
  • by Tango42 ( 662363 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:32AM (#14705559)
    Being able to correctly interpret messages in text form is a skill, if you're good at it you can get far more than 50% right. My rule of thumb is simple - assume the best, in other words, only be insulted if you're sure. Or put another way - "If you're in any doubt about whether or not I intended to insult you, I didn't. If I had, you'd know it."
  • This just in... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by boldtbanan ( 905468 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:34AM (#14705585)
    Simple statements with little or no context (and statements taken out of context) are misunderstood ~50% of the time.

    --Captain Obvious
  • Another major flaw (Score:2, Insightful)

    by LeonGeeste ( 917243 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:42AM (#14705644) Journal
    This study took essentially random, disparate topics, from multiple boards, and sent them in emails, isolated from the context. Of course people are going to have a hard time ascertaining sincerity when they don't see the context! An meaningful study would have measured people's perceptions of posts on boards they regularly go to. The conclusion may be the same, but at least then it would be well-grounded.
  • Re:This just in... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by macklin01 ( 760841 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:45AM (#14705668) Homepage

    Mod parent up.

    From what little details can be gathered from the article, the 20 statements were read and rated in isolation. Context is important in determining the tone of any statement, regardless of whether its spoken or written. Of course, in spoken language there's body language and, well, tone, to help, but the context is still very important.

    In fact, the tone of an isolated statement can also contrast with the overall tone of the conversation, so the tone of the isolated statement may not be helpful in a face-to-face conversation, either.

    So, while the study sounds interesting, I think it would be more interesting if they had used larger statements with context to see if the trends held. Perhaps they did this and the articles did poor reporting, but that's what I would think would need to be done. Interesting stuff, though. -- Paul

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:46AM (#14705682)
    And people still have misunderstandings.

    Its like the picture with two faces or one vase, there are two equally valid ways to see the picture, but once you see once, its not at all obvious there a second interpretation.

    Then again, I also know a guy who send emails along the lines. "This is why I'm right and you're not just wrong but stupid too. Now why are you being so childish as to continue this arguement? Lets end it now because I'm the adult and I want to have the last word and your desire to respond to what I've said is proof that you are a big baby." He's mystified that people don't respond to him being the bigger person.

  • by maillemaker ( 924053 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:46AM (#14705688)
    I find this hard to believe. In fact, I'd say the "karma" system here is a good indicator of why it's hard to believe.

    I don't think most people are shocked at what the moderator action is to any one of their particular posts. This is why some people preface what they are about to say with, "Mod me as you will...", or "I know I'll burn karma for this but...". People know.

    The problem isn't with being able to convey intent with email (words). The problem is with SEMI-LITERATE PEOPLE trying to convey, and conversely intepret, intent with email.

    If you take the time to be clear and articulate, there is no way it can only be 50/50 on someone understanding your intent, unless you are speaking to an absolute moron.

  • Writing (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Apreche ( 239272 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:48AM (#14705694) Homepage Journal
    It is difficult for most people to ascertain the tone of written communication due to their poor reading skills and the poor writing skills of the sender. Idiots need to go back to elementary school to learn something about grammar.

    Can you guess the tone of this comment?
  • PRECISE DICTION (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stealth.c ( 724419 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:50AM (#14705711)
    This is why precise diction--speaking and writing clearly--is necessary. It is often just as much the fault of the writer as it is the reader when a message's tone is misinterpreted.

    There are devices such as certain words, punctuations or even emoticons that can help you give your message the flavor of meaning that you want it to have, provided you know how to use them correctly.

    The skill to write well is a thousand times more valuable today than most people give it credit for. In a time when so much of our worldwide communication is written, we have to know how to properly build a written message instead of simply writing what we would speak and assume the reader will "get" it. You never know when you might offend someone.
  • by Vellmont ( 569020 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:54AM (#14705737) Homepage
    Well, if you really did make that post without the disclaimer there's really no hint of sarcasm in your post. If you're making a snide comment it's really your job to convey that. If someone takes it the wrong way and you didn't make some kind of effort to convey tone, that's really your fault in not communicating properly.
  • by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:56AM (#14705753)
    The English language (and even more so, in some other cases) is well equipped with nuanced words and structures that can accurately convey meaning, intent, tone, and information both simple and complex. Of course context is vital, but one of the most important considerations in any form of communication is an ability to preview what you're about to convey from the audience's point of view. When you send an e-mail to an informed co-worker, the circumstances surrounding the note probably make sense... but may not to the person to whom she forwards it.

    Most folks simply don't have the skill, or take the time, to craft a message that carries its context with it. The ironic flip side to this is that when someone does take more time to write a more solid, contextually portable note, people not used to digesting that sort of thing presume it's either pretentious, condescending, or just verbose for the sake of verbosity. This is a cultural thing, and speaks to the continuing erosion in critical thinking skills and the obligation families feel to pass them along to children.

    Anyone good with rhetoric knows how important it is to put yourself in your audience's shoes before opening your yap. The clearest communicators I know are the ones that are the most broadly exposed to the world at large, and take a deep breath before saying/typing anything, the better to ask themselves: will the person about to receive this e-mail get it? Five extra seconds can save hours of backpeddling, re-explaining something, or salvaging that business/personal relationship. But we've switched to celebrating speed and quantity of noise over quality of actual communication. This isn't going away any time soon, especially when entire generations are hitting their first email-enabled actual jobs thinking that "Dude" is an entire sentence.

    The plague that is the use of "like" among teenagers (and stunted-growth adults) is at the heart of this. When some 16-year-old encounters a friend in the mall and says, "So, I was like..." and rolls eyes in a re-enactment of experiencing the emotions surrounding some other social interchange, the message gets across. That even works on the phone ("I was like, 'oh no you did-unt'"). But when all of the social warm-and-fuzzies that a young person feels happen without the need for a multi-syllable vocabulary, we can't wonder why they suck at both investing rich meaning in, and parsing full meaning from the written word.
  • College students? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by 1369IC ( 935113 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:03AM (#14705823)

    Maybe it's just me getting older, but they're making a pretty big claim when their test group was a bunch of undergraduate students. I mean, it's a cliche that college students are clueless, hung over, self-involved, etc., etc., etc., and cliches get to be cliches for a reason.

    More seriously, like any other skill, you get better at communication the more you do it (if you have any brains, and care at all what's going outside your own skull, that is). So I'd venture to say that a bunch of 30-year-olds would do better than those college students because they have moved out into the world and gotten smacked around because they didn't understand what people were really saying. 40-year-olds would do better and so on, up to some point at which the improvement would stop (probably when people started to think they know it all).

    And there's the writing skill component. College students are learning to communicate, and from what I've seen of college grads their success rate is pretty spotty. It would presumably be easier to parse the tone of an e-mail sent by somebody who has more communications skill.

    I could go on, but I think this is just confirming the experience of too many people, blinding them to the study's weaknesses.

    Or maybe I just missed the point...

  • by JeffJewell ( 676801 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:34AM (#14706262) Homepage
    To be offened you have to choose to be offended, irritated, upset, whatever the hell the receivers problem is. I used to try to make this point on a bulletin board I host... but at this late date, I've given up and just don't post there, anymore. The real reason flame wars happen is that some people enjoy being offended, irritated, upset, or whatever the hell... some people enjoy the flame wars, so they'll always happen, no matter the topic or the local consensus on the topic.
  • Re:2 Rules: (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mikey-San ( 582838 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:40AM (#14706358) Homepage Journal
    1. Use emoticons and know how to read them.

    Is this a solid solution for the problem? I see this as, perhaps, a workaround; a crutch for what may actually be an increasingly lacking reading comprehension skillset in modern society. How will leaning on emoticons make you a better writer or reader?

    Instead of emoticons, use complete, structured thoughts and sentences, and know how to read them. Learn when and how to use word variants and punctuation to pace your sentences. Understand the difference between passive and active voice, and know when and why to use which. All of this seems to be a far more solid approach than emoticons.

    We should be concerned with deterioration of language to the point where we need emoticons to interpret other people's written communication. Resorting to requiring smilies for correspondence surely cannot help to reverse any possible erosion of language arts skills that prompted the requirement in the first place.

    It's good to know how to interpret other people's emoticons, as so many people who communicate via the Internet use them, but it's probably not a good idea to lean on them yourself.

    Now, this is simply my opinion--I could be completely off-base. Are there any English teachers in the Slashdot audience who might have an opinion on the matter?
  • Re:2 Rules: (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:51AM (#14706530)
    While I agree with you in principle, you cannot just use the language to convey a message. There is quite a bit of information in the way a word is spoken that is impossible to convey without something other than words. The way you accent a word or emphasize can change something from completely serious to completely sarcastic.
  • by blair1q ( 305137 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:15PM (#14706889) Journal
    >no better than chance

    Um, no. 50-50 is not "no better than chance" when it comes to the tone of emails. That would imply that 50% of emails are friendly and 50% are unfriendly, and readers are getting half of both wrong.

    Given this utter lack of understanding of probability and statistics, I'm going to have to doubt everything else the author says.

    He'll probably take that as an insult. Well, fuck him.
  • That's Why . . . (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Dausha ( 546002 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:20PM (#14706951) Homepage
    That is why God gave us emoticons! :-) So people would know what our mood or tone is.
  • by PFI_Optix ( 936301 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:44PM (#14707275) Journal
    I'm tired of people always blaming the sender. To be offened you have to choose to be offended, irritated, upset, whatever the hell the receivers problem is. Quit trying to lay your mental instability on me!

    I don't think it's fair to say that everyone chooses to be offended. I am rarely offended by internet posts, but occasionally someone does manage to sneak one in that raises my ire. "Righteous indignation" might be a better word for it...I don't know.

    I think it's justified to be offended by someone who assumes you are an idiot for whatever pointless reason. For example: I'm a Christian. That does not in itself say much at all about my character, my mental capacity, or any personality traits I might have. Yet any time that comes up on one of the debate forums I frequent, there's some bigot who thinks that my faith invalidates any points I might have. I find such mindless hate offensive, whether it's directed at me or at someone else.

    Because of that, one might occasionally misinterpret a sarcastic/satirical post as being sincere, and take offense. Two intelligent people can sort that out easily enough without things escalating by simply saying "No, you misunderstood me." It's when one or both choose to be idiots that things get stupid.

  • Re:2 Rules: (Score:3, Insightful)

    by geobeck ( 924637 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:58PM (#14707491) Homepage
    ...use complete, structured thoughts and sentences, and know how to read them.

    Amen. Consider the following:

    Your wayy off think about now not ancint history. RTFA befor postin sh1tz0r liek that.

    ...and compare it to this:

    Thaks for your input, but you seem to be talking about the historical context, whereas I'm talking about the way things are today. If you read the article, about halfway through it talks about how things have changed recently, and nullifies your point.

    Of course, it takes more effort to write the second example, and we're all looking over our shoulders to make sure the boss doesn't see us wasting our time on Slashdot, but the overall discussion would probably be shorter and more productive if everyone wrote the second way.

    On the other hand, it would be boring as hell. :)

    Flame on, Johnny!

  • Re:IRC (Score:3, Insightful)

    by pclminion ( 145572 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @01:02PM (#14707546)
    Real Time chat (like IRC) is much more convinient than emails. I feel that it's often easier to understand tone on IRC.

    That's because on IRC there are only two tones: SillyStupid and Asshole.

  • Re:2 Rules: (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 13, 2006 @01:50PM (#14708234)
    You're on the right tracks, though I don't think you can solve all misunderstanding issues with that attutide. Undoubtedly, poor grammar and phrasing are partially responsible for the plethora of 'creative interpretations'. However, as part of my Sociology AS level (bang goes any semblance of credibility :)) we learnt that approximately 90% of communication is contained in non-verbal channels such as tone of voice, eye movement, body posture etc. Now I'm not sure how they measure that and I can't point you to a source right now, but I don't think it's that far off the mark.

    Previously, text-only correspondence was easier since there was an implicit trust in the author's good intentions (as noted in RTFA). Nowadays we don't get that so much, and I think that's the major problem with online correspondence. Phrasing and smilies both help to overcome this, but cannot completely redress the fact that text-only communication is a crippled version of what we're used to in day-to-day life, and I think many people don't recognise it as such or treat it particularly differently.
  • Re:This just in... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by An Onerous Coward ( 222037 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @04:37PM (#14710196) Homepage
    I agree, mod parent up.

    I'd love to read the study, but the way it sounds, the subjects were given pre-built statements, an order to "be serious" or "be sarcastic", and told to send their pre-built statements to their partner while either "meaning" or "not meaning" it. If that's really the way it went down, then they're not testing for conveyance of emotion, they're testing for ESP. Given the fact that the recipients did "no better than chance" (the wording from the article) indicates to me that that's the actual methodology. Even with the brevity of the statements and the lack of context, I think they would have had at least a little success if the people sending the message had some control over the message they sent.

    For example, if I'm told "Type 'the food is great here'", I would have to do precisely that. However, if they leave it open, and instruct me to "Use sarcasm in complaining about the food", I'd have a chance to do something like this:

    "The food here is superb! Outstanding! One culinary masterpiece after another! While those fat, sweaty cooks may not strictly follow the hand-washing or hairnet policies, the end result is something I would definitely recommend to somebody I didn't want to see again. I particularly recommend the Gristle Surprise they serve on Tuesday, the Leftover Gristle Surprise they serve on Wednesday, and the Dessert Substance they serve on Thursday, which is a heavenly mixture of flour, water, possibly some sugar, and whatever Gristle Surprise they couldn't unload the two days before." Not profound humor, but certainly hard to mistake for serious accolades.

    I've been misunderstood many times, but I'm sure my tone is conveyed more often than not. The most serious misunderstanding I've ever had came from my participation in a small social network made primarily of real-life friends, with a couple of people who were pretty inactive in the group. One of those was a very beautiful girl I'd met on a couple of occasions, but never really gotten to know. So, charmer that I was, I fired off a message that said how much I hoped to see everyone at an upcoming party, except for that girl, given that we were mortal enemies. I figured, "It's funny because we're not really mortal enemies," but that's not how she took it. It took a couple of apologetic e-mails to calm her down, and I never did see her again.

    Bonus points for anyone who can figure out whether I was using the phrase "charmer that I was" in a serious or sarcastic sense.

    That sort of miscommunication is an exception. Mostly, we have context that guides us in finding sarcasm. For example, we know the person, their likes and dislikes, etc. We might know something about what they're doing at the time they're writing it ("The food is great" can be taken one way if we know our correspondent is writing from a cruise ship, rather than a wilderness survival class). Etcetera, etcetera.

    The interesting thing about the study was the confidence of the recipients. That does worry me.
  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @06:47PM (#14711608) Journal
    The study says nothing about being able to ascertain tone in real e-mail messages where cues for tone may actually be present. It says that it's impossible to ascertain the state of mind of people sending canned e-mail messages which (having been composed by someone other than the sender) have no cues for tone. Probably should have been published in the Annals of Improbable Research instead of a serious journal.

"Remember, extremism in the nondefense of moderation is not a virtue." -- Peter Neumann, about usenet