NCBI ROFL: Surprise surprise, sarcasm is hard to communicate via email.

By ncbi rofl | August 6, 2012 6:46 pm

Egocentrism over e-mail: can we communicate as well as we think?

“Without the benefit of paralinguistic cues such as gesture, emphasis, and intonation, it can be difficult to convey emotion and tone over electronic mail (e-mail). Five experiments suggest that this limitation is often underappreciated, such that people tend to believe that they can communicate over e-mail more effectively than they actually can. Studies 4 and 5 further suggest that this overconfidence is born of egocentrism, the inherent difficulty of detaching oneself from one’s own perspective when evaluating the perspective of someone else. Because e-mail communicators “hear” a statement differently depending on whether they intend to be, say, sarcastic or funny, it can be difficult to appreciate that their electronic audience may not.”

Bonus excerpt from the full text:

“We expected participants to overestimate their ability to communicate sarcasm. To test this hypothesis, senders’ predictions of the receivers’ accuracy were compared with the receivers’ actual accuracy. Because the data for each pair are interdependent, the data were analyzed at the level of the dyad. Specifically, we averaged each person’s estimate of the number of topics (out of 10) that they expected the other person to successfully decode and compared that number with the number of topics actually decoded. As expected, participants were overconfident: On average, participants expected 97% of their topics to be correctly decoded, compared with the 84% that actually were, t(5) = 3.23, p = .023, d = 1.32.

We attribute these results to egocentrism. Because senders knew, for example, that the statement “Blues Brothers, 2000—now that’s a sequel,” was meant to be sarcastic, they egocentrically assumed that their audience would as well. They presumably did not realize how ambiguous the statement really is without verbal emphasis on the word “that’s,” a facial gesture such as an eye roll, or some background information about the communicator (such as his or her taste in films).
Note, however, that despite reliable overconfidence, accuracy rates were quite high (84%). It would therefore be misleading to suggest from these data that people are poor at communicating sarcasm over e-mail. These data do suggest, however, that however able people are, they are not as able as they believe.”

Photo: flickr/acidpix

Related content:
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: How extraverted is Inferring personality from e-mail addresses.
Discoblog: NNCBI ROFL: The real reason Nigerian princes use email instead of handwritten spam.
Discoblog: NCBI ROFL: Writing emails as part of sleepwalking after increase in Zolpidem [Ambien].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: duh, NCBI ROFL, teh interwebs
  • The Dude

    >the statement “Blues Brothers, 2000—now that’s a sequel,” was meant to be sarcastic
    Everyone knows that BB2K was a crappy sequel (except for the “Ghost Riders” scene, which was awesome), so it’s obvious that either this statement MUST be sarcastic or you’re talking to a retard.

    • Guest

      Implying knowing about films makes you intelligent.

      Or, you are playing on the meaning of this article and trying to be sarcastic yourself, only to prove the point of the article?

  • Anonymous

    Dude that jsut makes all kinds of sense dude.
    Total-Privacy dot US

  • Wesley

    no, really!?!!?

  • Anonymous

    Isn’t this exactly the function of emoticons — to fill in this gap?  But I have to say I don’t see them as much as I did a few years ago.  


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NCBI ROFL is the brainchild of two Molecular and Cell Biology graduate students at UC Berkeley and features real research articles from the PubMed database (which is housed by the National Center for Biotechnology information, aka NCBI) that they find amusing (ROFL is a commonly-used internet acronym for "rolling on the floor, laughing"). Follow us on twitter: @ncbirofl


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