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E-mail Etiquette: More Critical than You Might Think

By Justin Kruger, Professor of Marketing

Justin Kruger research on e-mail communication

Overestimating the obviousness of one’s intentions can lead to insufficient allowances for ambiguities in communication – with occasionally destructive results.

New research from NYU Stern Professor Justin Kruger shows that all too frequently the gulf could not be wider between what a message sender intends and how that message is received.


Because an e-mail message cannot convey any body language, facial expressions, or vocal inflections – despite any emoticons the sender may insert – the recipient has no way to interpret what’s on the screen in any way other than reading the message through the screen of his or her own perspective, which of course is impossible for the sender to divine. Similarly, the sender can only operate from his or her own world at that moment.

In “Egocentrism Over E-Mail: Can We Communicate as Well as We Think?,” Kruger and co-authors Nicholas Epley, Jason Parker, and Zhi-Wen Ng started with the premise that social judgment is inherently egocentric. They then proceeded to investigate the level of confidence e-mail senders have that their messages will be properly understood – whether the senders were attempting to communicate sarcasm, seriousness, anger, sadness, or humor.

The authors found first that misunderstandings were common – even when sender and recipient knew each other – and, second, that e-mailers were largely unaware of that fact. Senders were typically overconfident that their intent was fully grasped by recipients. Kruger and colleagues further demonstrated that this overconfidence was due to egocentrism; in short, that people cannot overcome a basic inability to step outside of their own realities.

Says Kruger: “Overestimating the obviousness of one’s intentions can lead to insufficient allowances for ambiguities in communication – with occasionally destructive results.”