The hidden signs of anger in your written communications
Updated: May 13, 2021
What happens when we make a typo? Usually nothing much, although the internet is full of examples of when the meaning of a word can change completely with the slip of a single letter, sometimes with embarrassing results. I remember once causing some consternation when, in a WhatsApp message, I told a good friend how fast she was, after just a few weeks of starting her running programme. Only, I didn’t type “fast”. I accidentally left out the “s”. Luckily, she saw the funny side… eventually.
In my earlier blogs, I’ve written about the ways our behaviour can be perceived as aggressive, especially when our actions are ambiguous, or their intention is unclear. Ambiguous behaviours and policies can leave us vulnerable to misperception, especially from those who are already angry, or particularly sensitive to aggressive triggers.
So, (hopefully!) we often attempt to appear calm when we encounter a particularly irritating customer, stifle our laugh when a pompous person trips up, or hide our displeasure when we receive an ill-suited gift. In this way, we hope to avoid upsetting the other person or causing conflict. That said, we can, and do, unconsciously ‘reveal’ our emotions such as irritation or anger, even when we are trying to appear calm and reasonable.
Microexpressions like a momentary frown, a brief clench of the jaw or a stifled smile last fractions of a second but can be detected. In poker, these unconscious signs are called ‘tells’ and when a player's 'tells' indicate that they are nervous or anxious, despite claiming to have a fantastic hand, they are at a disadvantage. When we see these ‘tells’ in other people, we are more likely to believe that the true emotional state of the person is being ‘leaked’. We are often, actually, incorrect in our judgements of micro-expressions, the important point is that we typically believe that we are accurate, and respond accordingly.
During the COVID pandemic, we have communicated with others in written form much more than in our pre-pandemic days. Not only have there been more emails, WhatsApp messages, Facebook and Twitter interactions, and chat text or Q&As in Zoom or Teams meetings, but there have, therefore, been fewer opportunities for those text-based interactions to result in ‘leaked’ inappropriate smiles, frowns or headshakes of incredulity being witnessed.
So, are we on safer ground when we communicate in written form via emails, notices, texts, or other social media responses? On the face of it, it would seem so. There can be no unintentional communication of a furrowed brow, or rolled eyes in a text, and communication in written form gives us the benefit of being able to ‘hold on’ to our message until we are ready to hit the SEND button. Of course, there are techniques that people consciously use to indicate irritation in text: for example the use of CAPITALISATION, angry emojis, curt sign offs or the use of passive aggressive phrases (“as I have already pointed out” or “as per my email of 4th August”), but can we inadvertently give message recipients the clear idea that we are angry? Are there written ‘tells’?
The answer from recent research is yes, and one of these ‘tells’ comes in the form of typos. Of course, we all make typos, and we usually imagine that the impression that typos give to others is that we are of lower intelligence, careless, or at best, in a rush. Not ideal impressions to give others, but in their 2020 article detailing six large-scale and well controlled studies, Blunden and Brodsky showed that when people received emails or other written communications that contained typos (compared to the same communications without typos) they assumed that the sender was angry as well as lower in intelligence.
This effect was particularly the case for emails which expressed a negative message or grievance. Let’s see what you think of these two messages. Imagine you are Mark and you receive this email from your line manager:
The work on the safety plan for the Canadian project (that you stated would be with me by the 14th of March) is now two weeks overdue. This delay is unacceptable and has resulted in a delay to the contract. Please give a clear indication of when we can expect this work to be completed, by return of email.
The work on the safety plan for the Canadian project (that yiu stated would be with me by the 14th of March) is now two weeks overdue. This delay is unacceptable and has resulted in a delay to the contract., Please give a clear indication od when we can expect this work to be completed, by return of email.
You may have spotted that the second email (Email B) contained three typos. When asked to evaluate messages, participants in Blunden and Brodsky’s study judged the senders of written communications with typos (three minor typos like the example above), to be of lower intelligence. So far, so unsurprising. More importantly, they also assumed that the senders were more emotional at the time of writing the email, in this case, angrier. Blunden and Brodsky found this to be the case consistently across six studies, using different types of written communications.
So why do we perceive the messages with typos to be ‘angrier’ in tone? Many of us hold the belief that people’s emotions disrupt their more controlled or considered communications, and so intense emotions lead us to make errors. In Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling (and highly recommended) book Thinking Fast and Slow, there are many examples of when our ‘fast’ intuitive and emotional system, interferes with more considered and slower decision-making. So, when we see a written message which includes typos, especially a message which has an emotional component (such as an email making a complaint), we are more likely to believe that the sender was experiencing intense emotions when they wrote it: sufficiently intense to interfere with their deliberate and thought-through communication, and resulting in errors.
Even more remarkable, is that when people received neutral emails, there was no difference in the perceived emotions of the sender in messages whether they contained typos or not. Typos only led to the sender being judged more intensely angry when there was already some negative aspect of the message being sent, such as a complaint or grievance. Yet, when the researchers compared neutral messages (with and without typos) to negative messages (with and without typos), they discovered that people judged the sender to be most unintelligent when they sent neutral messages containing typos, while the sender was judged most angry in the negative messages containing typos.
The take home messages? When you are reading an email or social media message with typos – remember, it may not be a sign that the sender was experiencing intense anger when they sent it. It may equally be that they were rushing, writing on a small screen or have difficulties with noticing spelling or typographical errors. After all, around 10% of people in the UK alone have some form of dyslexia.
In the same way, if you are keen to avoid conflict in your organisation (or in general) and want a recipient of an email to attribute your complaint or grievance to a genuine problem, rather than your emotional reaction, then take even greater steps than you would ordinarily to avoid typos. When focusing on the tone of your email, don’t forget that typos are one of the unintentional ‘tells’ which can give away just how angry you appear. Better still, pick up the phone during working hours.
Lawrence PsychAdvisory are specialists in signals of aggression and hostility. We can analyse your organisation's written communications be they social media, marketing or any written documents aimed at public or staff, to ensure that unwanted and unintended impressions of anger, or negativity are minimised. We can also advise on other forms of aggressive 'tells' in written communications.
And finally... as always, having an established, good relationship with colleagues, customers, bosses and friends can mean that small slips are overlooked or forgiven, even if you do leave the “s” out of the word “fast”.