Lately, the challenges and opportunities of negotiating over Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have been closely considered. But email, that dinosaur of online communication, remains ubiquitous, thanks to its simplicity and convenience. Common concerns include how to ask your boss for a raise over email and how to negotiate salary through email, for example. Here, we overview two studies that shed light on the pros and cons of email communication.
Pros and Cons of Email Communication: Risky Requests
Imagine you’re trying to initiate a negotiation by asking a potential customer to listen to your proposal. Or maybe you’re thinking about negotiating salary via email. How likely is your customer or your boss to comply with your request?
The odds someone will comply with our requests when we approach them in person are much better than we tend to believe: We greatly underestimate the likelihood that others will say yes to our “asks,” research finds. Why? Because we don’t imagine how potentially awkward and uncomfortable it might be for someone to say no right to our face or how bad it might make them feel to let us down.
What about the requests we make via email—for a charitable donation, a meeting with a potential mentor, and so on? How likely do we think our email requests are to succeed, and how accurate are our perceptions?
To answer these questions, researchers M. Mahdi Roghanizad of Western University in Ontario and Vanessa K. Bohns of Cornell University had hundreds of university students approach strangers either in person or via email and make a request.
In one experiment, each student was assigned to ask 10 strangers either on campus or via email to complete a 44-item personality test for no reward. When asked to predict in advance how many of the 10 people they approached or emailed would comply, the students in both conditions predicted that about half of them would.
This was an underestimation for in-person requests; about 7 out of 10 people approached in person complied, on average. But for emailed requests, this was a vast overestimation: Most requesters did not get even one response from their 10 requests.
The implications of the findings, which were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, are clear: Although it’s easy and more comfortable to ask for favors via email, it’s even easier for recipients to press delete. We are far more likely to get their attention and compliance if we seek them out in person—or perhaps over Zoom.
Pros and Cons of Email Communication: Obscured Emotions
Negotiators’ expressions of emotion offer critical feedback about their preferences, offers, fears, and other information, yet emotions can be notoriously difficult to interpret accurately. It can be even especially difficult to assess negotiators’ emotions from their emails, which lack visual and verbal cues. Indeed, research shows that people are less adept at conveying their emotions in email negotiations than they think they are.
In four experiments on email negotiations, researchers Christoph Laubert and Jennifer Parlamis studied how effective negotiators are at detecting specific emotions conveyed via email, such as empathy, embarrassment, anger, interest, and contempt. In one experiment, two trained data coders who independently studied the same transcripts of email negotiations agreed on which emotions study participants expressed only about 22% of the time. Often, the coders’ judgments clashed, as when one thought a participant was expressing anger and the other thought the person was expressing interest.
In another experiment, participants in a negotiation simulation coded the emotions in the email messages they received; they, too, interpreted their counterparts’ emotions very differently than a trained coder did. Interestingly enough, across all the experiments, a computerized text-analysis program appeared to be just as bad as—or even worse than—humans at reading negotiators’ emotions accurately.
Bring Feelings to the Forefront
Given that email remains a convenient tool for negotiators located far apart, how can we improve our ability to read one another’s emotions? First, rather than assuming a counterpart will read between the lines (“Is this the best you can do?”), strive to state your emotions explicitly (“I’m feeling a little impatient with our progress”).
Second, check in with counterparts regularly to see how they’re feeling: “I got a sense that my last proposal upset you. Is that right?” You may not always like the answer you receive, but clearing the air is much more likely to end in a satisfactory outcome.
Third, if possible, meet in person, schedule a video call, or pick up the phone occasionally for an emotional check-in.
As these studies suggest, a list of the pros and cons of email communication is likely to include more cons than pros, relative to other forms of negotiation. Still, email has stuck around so long because it’s easy to use, allows us to craft messages thoughtfully, and doesn’t require an immediate response. As long as you take steps to address its limitations, there’s nothing wrong with continuing to use email in your everyday negotiations.
What other pros and cons of email communication are you aware of?