Even Your Friends Can’t Tell When You’re Being Sarcastic Over Email

Photo: Oliver Byunggyu Woo/Getty Images/EyeEm Premium

How many hours of your life have you wasted staring at your phone, trying to figure out if a message was snotty or sincere? Without any of the usual nonverbal cues that help us figure out a person’s intention — tone of voice, gestures, body language — decoding the intent behind an email or text can become a guessing game, with only context clues and your knowledge of the sender to help you through.

And even that, it turns out, may not even be all that helpful: According to a study recently published in the Journal of Human Communication Research, when it comes to judging the emotional tone of an email, your best friend may not be any better than a random person pulled off the street.

In the first part of the study, participants were asked to write an email describing how they reacted to a hypothetical scenario, chosen from a list the researchers compiled of mundane but somewhat emotional situations — things like attending a basketball game where your team wins, bombing a test, or hurting yourself falling off the treadmill at the gym. When they finished writing, the volunteers filled out a questionnaire rating the levels of joy, sadness, surprise, and other feelings their email contained, as well as their level of confidence that a friend and a stranger would be able to pick up on the tone. Each message was then sent to another participant in the study, who scored it on the same emotion scale.

In the second part of the study, participants did the same thing, with a twist: This time, the study authors recruited pairs of friends to write the emails, and each person read and scored their friend’s message in addition to reading a stranger’s. The researchers also set up Gmail accounts for this round, so that the subjects would have access to fonts, colors, and any other tools they typically used to jazz up their notes to their pals.

In both experiments, unsurprisingly, people had more trust that their friends would correctly interpret their emails than they did for strangers (though the two were linked — the more faith they had in their friends, the more they believed that strangers would get them, too). The level of closeness between writer and reader didn’t really make a difference: The friends weren’t any better at accurately gauging the emotional tone of the message. In fact, the more confidence a writer had in a friend, the worse that friend actually was.

In part, the authors hypothesized, this may be because we assume our friends will know what we mean without having to explain ourselves as fully: “Friendship might lead writers to take certain things for granted that are not taken for granted with strangers,” they wrote. “Evidence supports overconfidence at the keyboard, and it is clear that reliance upon friendship and situational knowledge when interpreting emotion is ineffective at best.” Maybe consider adding an emoji next time, just to be on the safe side.

Even Your Friends Can’t Tell When Your Email Is Sarcastic