I was browsing a newsagent’s shelf the other day at a rail station and noticed that, given the current unrest, February’s Wired has an unfortunate cover:

Wired showing a menacing Lego army

Ironically, as Slashdot notes today, the Wired Website carries an interesting report today on some research into misunderstanding the intended tone of emails. As if you needed telling, email messages are an extremely dangerous form of communication, even when you aren’t involved in fraud and corruption or spinning the news, much of the time people misread their tone:

“Don’t work too hard,” wrote a colleague in an e-mail today. Was she sincere or sarcastic? I think I know (sarcastic), but I’m probably wrong.

According to recent research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I’ve only a 50-50 chance of ascertaining the tone of any e-mail message. The study also shows that people think they’ve correctly interpreted the tone of e-mails they receive 90 percent of the time.

“That’s how flame wars get started,” says psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, who conducted the research with Justin Kruger of New York University. “People in our study were convinced they’ve accurately understood the tone of an e-mail message when in fact their odds are no better than chance,” says Epley.

The researchers took 30 pairs of undergraduate students and gave each one a list of 20 statements about topics like campus food or the weather. Assuming either a serious or sarcastic tone, one member of each pair e-mailed the statements to his or her partner. The partners then guessed the intended tone and indicated how confident they were in their answers.

Those who sent the messages predicted that nearly 80 percent of the time their partners would correctly interpret the tone. In fact the recipients got it right just over 50 percent of the time.

Of course, to misinterpret email you have to be able to read it in the first place