As our everyday communication becomes more text driven, researchers worry that the ability to communicate emotions may become compromised.

For example, is “OMG I just LOVE pizza” a sarcastic statement or is it heartfelt?

On a more serious note, misreading the emotional content of a message can have damaging consequences — especially in our relationships.

In the new study, researchers explored if certain factors allow a person to better infer emotions from messages delivered over communication channels such as email or text.

Intuitively, if the receiver of the message is a friend, they should be able to understand the sender’s emotion better than a complete stranger.

Investigators at Chatham University, however, found that friends are no better at interpreting correct emotional intent in e-mails than complete strangers.

The finings from Monica A. Riordan and Lauren A. Trichtinger appear in the journal Human Communication Research.

For the investigation the researchers conducted three studies to find out the effect of contextual information on the confidence and accuracy of affective communication via e-mail.

In the first two studies, writers wrote two e-mails, indicating the presence or absence of eight different emotions in each e-mail. One e-mail was based on a predetermined scenario, and the other freely written. These e-mails were then read by strangers, who rated each e-mail for those same eight emotions.

The third study tweaked the procedure to test the effect of relationship. Writers wrote two e-mails (one based on a scenario, the other freely written) and indicated whether eight different emotions were present in each e-mail they wrote.

Writers then sent these two e-mails to both friends and strangers, each of whom rated the e-mail for the same eight emotions, then wrote response e-mails.

Saliently, although writers were confident their friends would interpret the emotions in their e-mails in a more accurate way than strangers, this was incorrect. Likewise, although readers believed they would be able to “read” the emotions better in letters from friends than strangers, this was found to not be the case.

Therefore, although everyone was highly confident in their e-mail writing and reading abilities, the ability to detect emotions in textual messages is very difficult. This observation held true even when verbal and nonverbal cues, like emoticons, all caps, or repeated exclamation points were added to the message.

Past research has sought to determine how we communicate our emotions in environments from which facial expressions, vocal intonation, body language, and other cues are missing. But many of the studies have flaws in that they are based on artificial stimuli that third parties are asked to rate. It is difficult to determine whether nonverbal or verbal cues are substitutes for emotion without examining the communication as a whole.

“As e-mail, text messaging, and other forms of computer-mediated communication become more dominant forms of interaction, the communication of affect becomes more difficult, primarily because facial expressions, gestures, vocal intonation, and other forms of expressing emotion are lost,” said Riordan.

“It is clear from this study that readers can determine that we are angry, but cannot determine HOW angry. The loss of this subtlety could lead to consequences in many forms– especially in our relationships, where the difference between annoyance and rage can be vast, and a simple misinterpretation of an intended emotion can lead to a drastic alteration in that emotion.”

Source: International Communication Association/EurekAlert