Friday, April 11, 2008

It's just not as funny in email...

A recent study by researchers at NYU and the University of Chicago found that people routinely overestimate the success of their ability to communicate over email. In particular, sarcasm was a big miss. Overconfidence and egocentrism are the main culprits.

Well, gee, I’m not surprised (and yes, that IS a hint of sarcasm you read in my words). Once again, it’s really great when business school research confirms what people already know. After all, given their conclusions, it sounds like people in business, marketing, even education might need a reminder. But right now, as you read this, there are probably fifty newly minted education doctoral students whose dissertations focused on the difficulties that eighth graders encounter when trying to decipher textbooks, classic novels, or their history homework. Despite their love of the image, sometimes the world of business and advertising forgets that reading and communicating are skills.

If you take a look at what the advertising industry says are some of the top advertising slogans of the past ten years, you’d be surprised at what you find. Interestingly, many of them also have rather memorable icons to go with them (the Geico lizard, for example). What the study does point out is that we communicate better when we have images, nonverbal cues, gestures, and intonation helping us out. Or, better yet, a recognizable universe of cultural ideas that we share. Communication is always imperfect, but it works better if we have some clues in common.

It’s the same in the world of food. For researchers, despite advances in chemistry and molecular science, taste is incredibly difficult to pin down. And while I may wax on and on about the most amazing chocolate I had in Montreal last week and even bring you a piece to try, what you taste and what I taste is only imperfectly shared. It works better if we both have lots of shared images (chocolate bars! bonbons! truffles!), experiences (remember eating that molten chocolate cake in Boston!), and cultural stories (Mr Hershey, I presume?) about chocolate (it’s supposed to be sweet, dessert, indulgent, not laced with hot pepper, and definitely not as a sauce over the fish. Okay, well, maybe. You try it first.). And some chocolate creations (poop shaped, perhaps? ) are never ever funny. Knowing about taste in food is actually something we develop - based on the people we meet and the places we go -- as much as we think we’re born with it.

What’s important about this for the new forms of media is that communication isn’t as straightforward as you think it might be. No matter what kind of technology you have, words are important. The most important finding in this study has to do with the presumed state of mind of the communicator. Egocentrism is widely available in our culture, especially among those who think it’s their job, their mandate, and their calling to create the commercial messages that shape our landscape.

What the email research tells us is that marketing folks need to make a much greater effort – develop some skills, shall we say -- understanding the visual worlds of people who don’t look, think, eat, or email like them. Digital and new media have a world of tools way beyond emoticons at their disposal. The trick is using them for something everyone might understand.

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Rufus said...

Just thought I would point out that what you are saying about different connotaions affecting taste has back up in Baba Shiv's research. There is an article on Price and perception at that explains how he showed that taste actually is different (physiologically) when the price is different.

Rufus Evison

Annie said...

Thanks, absolutely, well said, Rufus. One odd and interesting place where you'll see this is in the cost of tuition for mid to high end colleges -- really! Lower cost was seen as lower quality. Of course, what's interesting in the world of higher ed is that only a percentage of students are paying that full ticket price.

Slate ( had a piece on this about five years ago and it's been picked up a number of times in the media since. Of course, today's academic news is that that growing slice of kids who are reliant on financial aid is now finding less and less of it and college costs are getting higher.