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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 EmagGeek ( 574360 ) <gterich AT aol DOT com> on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:28AM (#14705521) Journal
    "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,"

    On it's face, this statement is incompatible with:

    "In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time."

    It's no better than chance. It is better than Chance.

    Nice going..
  • IRC (Score:1, Interesting)

    by techefnet ( 634210 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:31AM (#14705551) Homepage
    Real Time chat (like IRC) is much more convinient than emails. I feel that it's often easier to understand tone on IRC.
  • by LarsWestergren ( 9033 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @10:41AM (#14705638) Homepage Journal
    Another reason for flame wars online, especially with regards to games, and on Slashdot, programming languages -

    A friend who studied psychology talked to me about the "crafty consumer" phenomenon. If we have purchased something we have looked forward to, we will disregard negative things about this and might even become angry if friends point out flaws in the product to us. This is because we all want to think that we are crafty consumers who have made the smart choice. Of course, WE would never fall for advertising, we think. So when evidence mounts that the purchase wasn't as good as we thought, we resist facing it until the evidence is overwhelming. Then it is a blow to our self-esteem and might even cause a depression ("Maybe I'm not as smart as I thought I was... and all that money wasted...").

    This can be even more amplified here on Slashdot when someone criticizes something that we have spent a lot of time and intellectual effort to grasp. When someone bash our favourite language, we think our anger comes because we feel "love" for the language, but it has probably more to that with the fact that it is a blow against our major source of pride - our intellectual capabilites. And if the language is not as good as we thought, it might take a long time to learn a new language as well. So in time of economic downturn the stress of increased job insecurity, we get angrier and defensive more easily. See my sig... :-)
  • 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.

    Humor or not, you do have a point. In formal communications it has always been considered important to maintain the best of manners and to always give the sender the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, a fairly harmless letter exchange can quickly turn into a long slew of misunderstandings.

    Once the Internet came along, senders and receivers alike began to believe that a formal tone was unnecessary to the otherwise informal communications. The result was that users began deciding the tone of the message by how new the sender was to the forum. If he was new, then his tone was automatically assumed hostile and his content full of stupidities. If he was old, then the tone was automatically seen as friendly and smart. This led to the situation of new forum members being forced to walk on eggshells until they were accepted by their peers.


    As an example of of how important the tone is to a conversation, consider this real life situation: People who run into each other on a campus (such as college or work) regularly engage in a simple greeting exchange like this:

    "How are you today?"
    "Fine, thank you!"

    Such greeting are ingrained into us as the way things are. But what if someone changes the message but uses the same tone? A story that was related to me was of a college student who amused herself with this exchange:

    "How are you today?"
    "Fine! To hell with you?"

    Since she used the exact same tone as someone replying politely, very few individuals caught on to her rather rude retort. (Which, of course, produced no end of amusement for both her and her friends.)


    Thankfully, there is one popular location on the Internet where formalized communication is still expected. (No, it's Slashdot.) If you have ever visited Wikipedia, you'll find that they encourage people to allows assume the best in their exchanges, and be careful about taking offense. If a communications breakdown occurs, then volunteers provide mediation to help to the two parties come to a better understanding of what each other is trying to say. In this way, miscommunications are usually kept from starting outright flamewars. Without these procedures, Wikipedia would have long ago devolved into nothing more than massive editing wars.
  • by wealthychef ( 584778 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @11:57AM (#14706629)
    I agree that interpreting tone of email can be problematic, but no way is it just the same as chance. That's just obviously wrong by experience, think about it.

    One huge gaping problem in methodology here is the apparent researcher request that students essentially fake the tone of their email. So this study is in large part measuring how well the sender *acts* "sarcastic" or "serious." From my observations in theatre, most people are not very good at faking their "tone", compared to when they actually *want* to be sarcastic or serious. A better study would have asked students to write on subjects and send the emails to their friends, then asked the sender and recipient of the tone of the email, then compared the results, without asking the sender to fake their feelings. I'll bet the percentage would go way, way up.

  • Re:PRECISE DICTION (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:02PM (#14706709)
    "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."

          I'm sorry, but I have to take exception to this statement.

          My issue with it is that the more specific and correct I get, the more often I am misunderstood. Too much of the American version of English has been twisted with emotional (and frequently regional) baggage for my distant reader to actually be using the dictionary's meaning for my word choices.

          An example? The word prejudice. It is a marvelous word, whose meaning is not negative in the least. Try using it correctly without explaining that you are doing so, and see how fast the flames start.

          As with any other communication, the writer is responsible for identifying his audience, and tailoring his message to that audience. In my experince online, however, the audience is too diverse, too internally divided, for me to be able to target a single set of regional usages and actually get the meaning across.

          I have settled on simply trying to use the core definitions for words, and putting forth the effort to select the optimal word based on those core definitions. That way, at least, once the flames start, I can ask them to review my post with a dictionary, and without their personal emotional baggage. It has stopped exactly one flame that I remember, though. Not even a marginal success rate.

    Spobody Necial
  • by backlonthethird ( 470424 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @12:51PM (#14707389)
    People writing emails, intentionally trying to convey tone, have only a 50/50 chance of actually succeeding at it.

    I used to feel silly having "writing" as one of the skills I put on a resumé. Not anymore. Thank you, internet, for boosting my self-esteem.
  • by ScentCone ( 795499 ) on Monday February 13, 2006 @01:02PM (#14707534)
    Poorly composed emails are not necessarily a symptom of fewer critical reasoning skills; I think they are more the result of a shift in focus during communication, from a single point of context (such as a letter or a book) to interactive, real time textual communication (such as email or instant messaging). When writing begins to feel more like speaking, the two forms of communication will blur. Interactive, conversational communication allows instant clarification, and does not require rigorous composition.

    You're right! You should have just said, "You're wrong," and then I could have asked for some clarification.

    Kidding, of course.

    I think you're generally right. There are just too many variations, though, on the poor-emailing-skills theme to explore them all with one thesis in mind. I think the real problem with the really poor cases (of both writing AND reading such) is lack of attention span. Some people just can't hold a concept in their heads all the way to the second paragraph. It takes practice to stretch out and tune your linguistic/symbolic/conceptual input buffer, and very few younger people are getting that practice any longer. The biggest narrative arc they can handle is exactly as long as a music video. Sigh.
  • Re:2 Rules: (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AeroIllini ( 726211 ) <> on Monday February 13, 2006 @01:22PM (#14707828)
    Learn when and how to use word variants and punctuation to pace your sentences.

    Although, overuse, of, punctuation? is, highly; distracting.

    Understand the difference between passive and active voice, and know when and why to use which.

    Active voice (taking responsibility):
    We made an error.

    Passive voice (shifting responsibility):
    An error was made.

    We should be concerned with deterioration of language to the point where we need emoticons to interpret other people's written communication.

    I find it amusing that the deterioration of our language in many cases is cause by an overabundance of vocabulary. I think more words, with very subtle shades of meaning, can allow more depth in our communication. However, most people use these words with slightly different meanings almost interchangably, and that confuses the reader. What, exactly, is the difference between "paradigm," "model," "precedent," and "situation?" If you don't know the difference, don't use the words.

    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.

    This is a chicken-and-egg problem. Were our language arts skills weakened by our poor typing skills (the main reason emoticons were developed in the first place--they are easier to type than words if you're not a touch typist), or were our poor typing skills a reflection of our weak language arts skills?
  • Re:2 Rules: (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Spaceman40 ( 565797 ) <`blinks' `at' `'> on Monday February 13, 2006 @01:56PM (#14708298) Homepage Journal
    Well, IANAET, but I think the problem with tone is that IM/email is a cross between a phone conversation and writing letters. On the phone, tone isn't a problem because you can hear it. In letters, usually the writer is formal enough so tone isn't a problem, but also it takes enough effort (and enough time) that the receiver can cool down before writing back.

    In summary: you can't hear the other person, and it's quick and easy to insult them back.

    The problem with gaining writing skills is that it won't help; you're not (usually) writing in third person (Spaceman40 thoughtfully notes), so you don't get the descriptive ability that provides. The writer has to provide a way to figure out the tone (emoticons are great for that), and the reader has to give the benefit of the doubt.

    IM/Email is a new form of communication (quick/occasionally dirty/written), and with all types of communication, there are ways to be misunderstood. :)

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling