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February 15, 2006

The Secret Cause Of Flame Wars

I know that one of the causes of flame wars is misunderstanding someone's intentions in writing. It's very hard to ascertain someone's tone in writing on blogs, on message boards, and in e-mail. However, Wired reports that misunderstanding tone is a big cause of flame wars. The article focuses on e-mail, but I can see misunderstanding tone being behind many flame wars in other public places on the Internet, including blogs.

The article pointed out that most people think they can accurately detect a person's tone in e-mail, when in reality they get the tone right only about half the time. Psychologist Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago conducted some research with Justin Kruger of New York University. They had a group of people e-mail others, and these people were instructed to use either a "sarcastic" tone or a "sincere" tone. The results were very interesting. Their research was recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"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."

I know we can't know much about anything because of the small sample size, but the results were nonetheless interesting. It is hard to ascertain tone when writing to people. So many nuances are lost in translation. I'd like to see a more extensive study with a larger sample size. This research is very interesting.

There was one point brought up in the article that I definitely agree with. The person who brought it up was Nancy Flynn, executive director of the e-Policy Institute and author of guidebooks E-Mail Rules and Instant Messaging Rules. She said:

"People write absolutely, incredibly stupid things in company e-mails."

Yup, they sure do. Smiley1

Posted on February 15, 2006 at 11:51 AM | Permalink


I can't say how many times I have put quotes around a word, thinking that the irony was more than obvious, and somebody didn't get it. For instance, I was emailing some progressive friends in Canada, and I cattily referred to some Canadian FR people by name as some of your "friends" up there, and they were deeply offended. "They aren't our friends!" They wrote back. Well, no. Of course not. That was the point. That's why the word was in quotes? Anymore, I'm finding that I need to avoid ironic references because I am always being misunderstood that way.

Posted by: silverside at Feb 15, 2006 12:32:58 PM

I think trish is a wicked, wicked woman!

Could you see the playful glint in my eye?

Posted by: will at Feb 15, 2006 12:44:47 PM

Will, I definitely see the wicked glint in your eye. And the wink. ;)

That's happened to me, Silverside. I use smileys a lot when I'm being snarky so that people will know not to take me seriously, but they miss the point anyway. I used a smiley responding to Will because I know he was teasing me. He was so cute about it. I'm a naughty, naughty girl!! I've noticed that some people take offense at even the most innocuous comments. The study found that people are basing their reactions on their own emotions at the time they read the e-mail. That was interesting.

Posted by: The Countess at Feb 15, 2006 12:49:33 PM

Why dont you ever take me seriously?!?!?!!?

Naughty wouldnt have had the same impact. Everyone knows that you mean sexually wild when you say naughty.

But I think you are correct. People's perception of your tone is largely based on their emotion and specifically who they think you are.

Posted by: will at Feb 15, 2006 12:53:43 PM

We do this in other areas as well.

Harvard Professor Trish Wilson says "....." makes you at least stop and think "Did she say something sutpid or am I just not smart enought to understand her?"

Recently released from prison Felon says "....." and you dont feel compelled to wonder whether he said something smart.

Posted by: will at Feb 15, 2006 12:55:53 PM

I've never written to inmates, but my first job out of college was working at a federal halfway house for convicted felons. I knew more people that broke the law than I am confortable admitting. Heh heh heh.

Yes, Will, I am also wicked as well as naughty. Wicked, naughty girl!!!

Posted by: The Countess at Feb 15, 2006 1:04:55 PM

I don't think this study has much - or for that matter any - credence. It only focused on understanding tone, without investigating other causes of flamewars (e.g. making exaggerated statements and not backing off because that would be tantamount to admitting a mistake).

Usually I use an ellipsis to indicate sarcasm. I'm still not completely comfortable writing smilies in comment boxes, and I have a personal aversion to scare quotes, so ellipses are all I can use. Still, in most cases people can tell judging by what I write; and in my experience, misunderstandings are quickly corrected rather than blown up to produce flamewars.

Posted by: Alon Levy at Feb 15, 2006 9:14:24 PM

"People write absolutely, incredibly stupid things in company e-mails."

Truer words have never been spoken. haha.

But the thing is - okay, so we know what STARTS a lot of flame wars... But I think it's more important to ask the question (and answer it) What CARRIES THEM ON?

Posted by: Chloe at Feb 19, 2006 3:34:02 AM

What carries on flame wars is feeding the flamers. If you ignore them, they go away when they don't have an audience. The same may be applied to trolls.

Posted by: The Countess at Feb 19, 2006 2:01:52 PM

I thought you would feed your guests?

Posted by: will at Feb 19, 2006 9:59:39 PM