According to “media naturalness theory,” what makes a medium of communication “natural” is how closely it resembles face-to-face conversation. The more a medium allows people to respond to each other in real time, to see each other’s faces and body language, to hear each other’s voices, the more “natural” it is. Skype, by this definition, is very natural. Email, not so much.
This is why, in a new study forthcoming from the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers expected that people would have a more negative valence to their emotions, with less emotional arousal (science-speak for feeling bad and bored) when using email compared to voicemail. Voicemail at least allows for the conveying of emotion through tone. The researchers also hypothesized that participants would prefer email to voicemail for utilitarian messages, and voicemail to email for romantic messages.
They were wrong. The participants—72 college students—showed stronger emotional responses when composing an email than when leaving a voicemail, as measured by the movement of their facial muscles, and how sweaty they got on their hands and feet (an unfortunate side effect of experiencing emotion). They also used stronger and more positive language when writing a romantic email than when leaving a romantic voicemail.
“The received wisdom or common belief is that email is a colder medium, so it’s something that’s not really good for romantic communication,” says Alan Dennis, a professor of internet systems at Indiana University and a co-author of the study. “That wasn’t what we found.”
This research challenges the notion that more “natural” communication is always better and more enjoyable. (People are kind of over talking on the phone anyway. Especially the youngs.) And depending on how you look at it, email isn’t necessarily that unnatural.
“It’s pretty clear if you take an evolutionary-biology viewpoint that email and text messaging is less natural than face-to-face and telephone,” Dennis says. “If you take a different perspective and look at what people grow up with you might come to a different conclusion. [Young people] grew up on email and text messaging, so maybe it’s part of their natural vocabulary.” And while email is undoubtedly different from talking face to face, it’s still a communication tool created by humans, for humans. When a bird makes a nest, we don’t call it unnatural for not just sleeping on a bare branch.
There’s not a ton of research out there on romantic emails and the emotions they elicit, but studies have shown email to be helpful in maintaining long-distance relationships, and a theory called “social information processing theory” contends that online interactions are no worse for building a relationship than face-to-face interactions, they just do it a little more slowly. And a love email is surely faster than a love letter, though I suppose for speed you sacrifice seeing your lover’s handwriting, and the place where a single tear stained the page as they were overcome with emotion while writing.
In the new study, the researchers posited that the extra time and thought put into an email as opposed to a voicemail might be why it elicited stronger emotions.
“Email enables senders to modify the content as messages are composed to ensure they are crafted to the needs of the situation,” the study reads. “Thus senders engage with email messages longer and may think about the task more deeply than when leaving voicemails. This extra processing may increase arousal.”
The extra processing may also be a way of compensating for email’s shortcomings. People used stronger, more positive language in the emails they composed for the study than they did in voicemails. For example, this is one voicemail left by a study participant:
Hey babe. What's going on? I miss you a lot right now. I hope that I see you later. I know we have dinner plans but who knows you said you could be busy with something but I'll definitely still come over if you are and help you. Miss and love you. Bye.
And this is one email:
Subject: Yay :DDDD
I'm really excited to see you this weekend. I have no idea what we are going to do but as long as you're here it doesn't really matter (although cuddling is a must!!!). Please be safe getting here. COUNTING DOWN THE MINUTES :]]]]]
Love you baby <3
“People know it’s harder to communicate emotion in email, so as a result [they] have to be a bit more explicit,” Dennis says. Maybe stating their feelings in a clearer, more forthright way was what made the experience of writing a love email more intense.
The study didn’t look at how people felt when they received these emails, though—only what it was like for the sender. And though the researchers didn’t see any difference in the senders’ emotions whether they were writing to a current partner or just a romantic prospect, I imagine the recipients might feel differently upon seeing a romantic email from a random acquaintance as opposed to from their boyfriend or girlfriend.
Because this is the other appeal of sending your feelings in an email. You get to distance yourself from possible rejection. You get to be free of the effort of real-time interaction—watching to see how someone reacts, tailoring your reactions in response.
“There’s been research that shows if people have to deliver bad news they want a medium that separates them as much as possible, email or text messages,” Dennis says. “It may be the same thing [with] romantic communication when you’re not really sure how the message is going to be received.”
The protections afforded by distance can definitely be exploited. It’s one thing if someone is essentially lobbing a love bomb and running away before having to watch it explode. But for the subtler, sweeter stumblings of romantic communication, email strikes me as a fairly natural medium. Flirting is by its nature a sort of approach-and-run-away ballet. It can be oblique and easy to misinterpret. The mating dance of the homo sapien involves a lot of overtones and undertones and plausibly accidental knee-touches. It requires you to read between the lines. And so does email.