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You’ve got (b2b) Mail!

Little academic consideration has been given to the psychological functions fulfilled by digital correspondence. Possibly, because of ubiquity, it becomes difficult to step back and perceive emails as a subject matter for analysis rather than a means to an end.

This article has striven to cut through a set of example emails, and to indicate intended or unintended psychological processes projected by the sender, as well as potential analyses that could or should be made by the recipient.

While possibly some of the emails or situations might come across as familiar, all content and persons mentioned are fictitious and have been created solely for illustrative purposes.

While emails have become an integral part of corporate life, consuming as much as a quarter of our working time (Czerwinski, Horvitz and Wilhite, 2004), little academic consideration has been given to the psychological functions fulfilled by these communications.

Possibly, because of their ubiquity, it becomes difficult to step back and perceive emails as a subject matter for analysis rather than a means to an end. While there is potential for the setting up of a full taxonomy of functions of emails in business, in what follows, a far less ambitious plan is being laid out, namely that of cutting through a set of example emails, and to indicate intended or unintended psychological processes projected by the sender, as well as potential analyses that could or should be made by the recipient.

While possibly some of the emails or situations might come across as familiar, all content and persons mentioned are fictitious and have been created solely for illustrative purposes.

Sender’s Intentions
The sender is aiming at projecting an image of engagement, passion and commitment towards the organisation. By providing a response late in the evening, Joseph is attempting to mould Mary’s perception of him through the communication - the process may have been carried out deliberately with an aim towards ingratiation, or possibly unconsciously but with the same possible objective.

Recipient’s Perspective
While easy to fall into ingratiation traps, it is important that the recipient realises the underlying connotations. While some corporate cultures might promote an all-out engagement and reward these behaviours, the recipient should realise that there is value in such follow ups only if the sender forwards content in the email. Simple late night acknowledgements add little of value outside an increase in mailbox count. Commitment and motivation are important ingredients in the work environment but when  presented in an undirected manner, attempts should be made to channel them into constructive vessels.


Sender’s Intentions
In this email, the sender is including all possible recipients in the communication. In most likelihood, the sender is engaged in a defensive psychological process in which she is making sure that no harm will come out of what is being passed on to others in the email. In general, this could be indicative of insecurity, or of a corporate climate bolstered by tension, high enmity and a propensity for over use of disciplinary procedures.

Recipient’s Perspective
The recipient should be cognizant of the insecurity being communicated in the email and should seek to determine whether there is ground for development in the individual and/or areas of concern for the department or organisation.

Very often, with multiple persons in copy in the same email, it becomes difficult to realise who should take specific action (particularly if not highlighted in the email itself by the sender). In these instances, there is a risk of spreading or shedding of responsibility through a phenomenon social psychologists refer to as social loafing. Latane’ (1979 as cited in Brehm, Kassin, and Fein 2005) asserts that as the number of persons in a group increase, people tend to experience a decrease in accountability, resulting in a lower effort in collaborative processes. This has been documented in lab studies calling for group effort in clapping, but also in real world occupational scenarios. In email there is particular risk for this to result given the limitations of the communication channel.


Sender’s Intentions
In this instance the sender is expressing cordiality towards the recipient and is doing so both through the message as well as through the form used. There is an over expenditure of resources in that the result is being achieved through the investment of time which could have been channelled differently.

Recipient’s Perspective
Excessive formatting, overuse of emoticons, and use of abbreviations are a guaranteed means of leading to a recipient to take less seriously an intended communication. The emphasis and attention moves naturally from content to structure and consequently to a watering down of the strength of the intended message.


Sender’s Intentions
In this email there is a clear and apparent projection of hostility, the setting up of a barrier with the recipient, and an assertion of power and authority.

Recipient’s Perspective
When confronted, all organisms tend to respond in one of two possible manners - fight or flight. While fight or flight are not always possible within the work environment, the thought processes underlying interactions will still be the same and as a result the mechanisms will tend to be expressed in a more subtle manner and in the socially expected forms (in the case of fight, through email confrontation, setting up of in and out groups, while in the case of flight through sick leave or the tendering in of a resignation).


Conclusion
Emails represent an important social phenomenon and to date have received limited attention in research, particularly with regards to the psychological processes involved in the communication interchange. The examples reviewed represent mini case studies in select contexts although there is value in widening the line of enquiry through quantitative, or more exhaustive qualitative means.

References:

Brehm, S. S., Kassin, S., & Fein, S. F. (2005). Social Psychology. London: Houghton Mifflin.

Czerwinski, M., Horvitz, E., & Wilhite, S. (2004). A Diary of Task Switching and Interruptions. Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1, 175-182.
Freud, S. (1990). Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1905)

Pinnington, D. (2010). The bad news about email message recall: It doesn’t work. Retrieved January 12, 2014, from http://www.slaw.ca/2010/03/23/email-message-recall-doesnt-work/



Last modified onSunday, 18 May 2014 20:01
Calvin Cassar

Calvin Cassar is currently employed as Human Resources Manager at FTIAS, part of FTI GmbH, a multi-national company operating in the tourism industry. He holds particular interest and expertise in recruitment, assessment and quantitative analyses having gained exposure in these through academic as well as work experiences.

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