When in Doubt, Don’t Send an Email

virtual communication

By Yvonne Milosevic

Human communication has evolved, but one thing remains constant: we convey a lot of what we’re thinking and feeling through body language. We can show empathy, anger, boredom, and more without saying a word. Now, thanks to COVID-19, in-person cues have mostly gone out the window. That means we need to consider which virtual communication strategies can fill in those gaps.

Andrew Brodsky, assistant professor of management at Texas McCombs School of Business, studies virtual communication in the workplace. He recently researched how different communication tools reflect, or misrepresent, our emotions.

Matching Virtual Communication to the Situation

Brodsky shared his findings in Medium on the merits of face-to-face interaction, telephone, and email communication. It turns out some channels work better than others in specific scenarios. And our preferred method rates far worse than you might expect.

Many of us default to email communication every day. Yet, Brodsky discovered that email is one of the worst tools for conveying emotions. Even if you’re being authentic, the person on the other end often perceives the message as insincere. With emails, we tend to believe the recipient will interpret our message exactly as we mean it. In reality, our differing perceptions can easily cause misunderstandings. All too often, an email can hurt interpersonal relationships where emotions are involved, Brodsky warned.

When it comes to expressing authentic emotions, you should choose the richest medium possible, he suggested. In these cases, face-to-face interaction or video conferencing works best.

Surprisingly, the good ol’ fashioned telephone is the most underrated virtual communication tool of all. “My key finding,” Brodsky shared, “is that when you’re conflicted in your emotions, and you know some of that conflict might leak through if you meet in person, it’s better to use the telephone.”

virtual communication

A phone call hits the sweet spot, Brodsky explained, because it doesn’t come off as inauthentic the way email does. But on the flip side, “it doesn’t give too much away, like face-to-face communication or video conferencing,” he added.

“When you’re faking it, you don’t want to go face to face because there’s this emotional leakage [and] people often pick up on unconscious cues,” Brodsky said.

Unexpected Emotional Signals

Since we can’t escape our reliance on emailing, Brodsky also wanted to determine if emails held any unintentional emotional cues. It turns out, typos send a message of their own. “If there’s emotion in an email — for example, we studied anger and joy — typos will amplify it,” Brodsky discovered, “because it looks like the messenger is so emotional that he’s not thinking clearly.”

Therefore, mistakes in an angry email make the sender seem angrier, while typos in a happy email make the message seem happier. “On the other hand, if there’s a typo, but there’s no emotion being expressed in the email, the reader just assumes the person is either careless or unintelligent,” he added. “So, we’re given somewhat more latitude to make mistakes in emotional emails than we would otherwise.”

During these stressful times, we need to become even more attuned to how and what we’re communicating with others. We may need to be distant physically right now, but taking extra care when choosing a method to relay a message can help us remain emotionally connected.


We hope these insights from Brodsky offer food for thought while working remotely. For more on the subject of virtual communication skills, check out our previous post with tips for virtual meeting success.