The Disembodied Body Language of Email

Email Body Language
It's not as simple to decode as they'll have you believe.

When the written word was invented, there was a huge chasm that separated writer from reader. No one would have expected that the time span between writing and reading could have shrunk to the point it is at now, thanks to the lightening-speed of the internet, and the communication culture that evolved with it. With computer-mediated communication, reading and writing have become a tango. Text is ephemeral, disposable, spontaneous – much like real-time natural language. In fact, texting occurs at near-conversation rates. How does this alter our experience of the written word? When text communication approaches this rate of exchange, something new kicks in: emotions and fleeting thoughts get mingled with the generation of words.

Enter body language.

Yes, email has body language. But hold on: we’re talking a special kind of body language — nothing like the kind we generate with our fleshy selves. We’re talking a kind of body language that manifests in the peculiar and awkward medium of electronic texts, with certain relatively-new forms of punctuation (smileys, emoticons, etc.), and new kinds of formatting and abbreviations (LOL, etc). Email body language is a real phenomenon. And it needs to be fully understood.

Can Email Body Language Be Trusted?

Steve Tobak wrote a CBSNews article called “How to Read Virtual Body Language in Email”. Tobak makes several astute observations. However, he makes some assumptions that appear to ignore the media effects of email. Like so many oversimplified lessons on “how to read” body language, this article paints a two-dimensional picture of email communication, with bullet-point rules like, “verbose means pleased or happy”, and “consistently precise grammar can mean controlling behavior”.

Interpreting email body language is not that simple. In fact, email is often used by people as a way to avoid emotion or intimacy. Even though email is generally more spontaneous than writing a novel or a dissertation, email is still a form of asynchronous communication: the exchange doesn’t happen in real time. An email message could take an arbitrary amount of time to compose, and it could be sent at an arbitrary time after writing it. Thus, email is not a reliable medium for reading one’s true emotions. A good writer can “fake” a spontaneous emotion. A careless writer might not be able to hold back a momentary act of rage -– or gushing praise. How do we navigate this confusing realm of out-of-body body language?

Email is Not Transparent

People sometimes make the mistake of assuming that a given communication medium provides a transparent channel for human expression. The only medium that is completely transparent is air (the medium by which we exchange natural language –- a multimodality of sight, sound, touch…and smell). Every other medium imposes constraints –- artifacts: media effects. In generating and interpreting email body language, we must take into account the McLuhan effect. The message is NOT determined only by the communicators. The medium is a big part of the message.

Jekyll and Hyde Flame Throwers

Tobak says this about flame mail:

“…when you receive what we affectionately call flame mail –- where someone lets loose on you in a big, ugly way –- that’s aggressive behavior. In other words, they’re acting out like a child throwing a temper tantrum and it’s not about you, it’s about them. I know it’s tempting to think it’s just a misunderstanding, but ask yourself, why did they assume the worst?”

But it’s not just “about them”. It’s also about the medium –- an awkward, body-language-challenged medium; a medium which we often hide behind; a medium in which people often express negative feelings because “it’s just words”. People can feel “safe” behind the email wall (they won’t get punched in the face – at least not immediately). There’s something about the medium that can cause people to flame – EVEN if they are not normally flame-throwers. In the book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier gives a well-articulated explanation for how and why this phenomenon occurs. Facebook, email, blog comments, and other such venues have a way of turning people into two-dimensional cartoon characters –- anonymous agents. We fall prey to this dimensionality-reducing effect, and lose our sense of respect, intimacy, and co-presence. Being in the physical presence of others has a normalizing and socializing effect. And the absence of this natural channel of body language is harder for some people to process than others.

The Dreaded Send Button

Many of us have been guilty of sending email messages in the heat of an emotional moment. When writing an email in this state of mind, we feel as if we are in the middle of an interaction. Emotions have a way of stopping time. But after a good night’s sleep, the writer comes back to discover in horror that the email is now a frozen record of a momentary eruption, sitting on the reader’s computer screen, where it can be read a hundred times over. While the writer slept off the negative emotions, the reader spent the whole night fuming. What a waste of emotional energy that could have run its natural course in the span of a few minutes!

No solution or magic bullet is being offered here. All that is being offered is a warning: email body language does not correspond to our real bodies. It must be generated, and interpreted with an understanding of the media it occupies: a relatively young mechanical substrate of computers, software interfaces, and the internet. Our own bodies, in contrast, are expression machines that have benefited from billions of years of evolution.

About Jeffrey Ventrella 1 Article
Jeffrey Ventrella is the author of Virtual Body Language, which explores the future of body language on the internet. Jeffrey has a degree from the MIT Media Lab, and spent a decade developing expressive avatars for and Second Life.

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