Michael Morris and Jeff Lowenstein wouldn't have recognized each other if they'd met on the street, but that didn't stop them from getting into a shouting match. The professors had been working together on a research study when a technical glitch inconvenienced Mr. Lowenstein. He complained in an e-mail, raising Mr. Morris's ire. Tempers flared.
"It became very embarrassing later," says Morris, when it turned out there had been a miscommunication, "but we realized that we couldn't blame each other for yelling about it because that's what we were studying."

Morris and Lowenstein are among the scholars studying the benefits and dangers of e-mail and other computer-based interactions. In a world where businesses and friends often depend upon e-mail to communicate, scholars want to know if electronic communications convey ideas clearly.

The answer, the professors conclude, is sometimes "no." Though e-mail is a powerful and convenient medium, researchers have identified three major problems. First and foremost, e-mail lacks cues like facial expression and tone of voice. That makes it difficult for recipients to decode meaning well. Second, the prospect of instantaneous communication creates an urgency that pressures e-mailers to think and write quickly, which can lead to carelessness. Finally, the inability to develop personal rapport over e-mail makes relationships fragile in the face of conflict.

In effect, e-mail cannot adequately convey emotion. A recent study by Profs. Justin Kruger of New York University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago focused on how well sarcasm is detected in electronic messages. Their conclusion: Not only do e-mail senders overestimate their ability to communicate feelings, but e-mail recipients also overestimate their ability to correctly decode those feelings.

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