Why You’re Constantly Misunderstood on Slack (and How to Fix It)

People weren’t made for the era of remote work

Photo: Austin Distel/Unsplash

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today to give you a better tomorrow.

Efficiency is the trademark quality of online chat platforms. It’s so much quicker and simpler to shoot off a quick message to a friend or colleague than it is to schedule a phone call or an in-person meeting (remember those?). For many of us, though, efficiency has always been secondary to a different attraction: Sending someone a chat or a text feels like a semi-anonymous action, divorced from the identifiable, highly personal context of the sound of the voice and the expressions of the face. Typing out a message semi-dissociated from the self makes the delivery that much easier for those of us who are shy or socially anxious.

But this separation of message from context makes misunderstandings much more likely. Body language is a silent but critical feature of talking face-to-face, but it’s missing from most online discussions, resulting in a lot of guesswork the listener has to perform to read between the lines of a statement. Add a time when most people who work in office environments are now depending almost entirely on chat platforms and the occasional video or phone call, dump a heavy dose of stress and anxiety from a global pandemic and social unrest, and you have a recipe for communicative disaster. It doesn’t have to be inevitable, though: Proper management and an empathetic assumption that most people are trying their best can help smooth over the worst of it.

Part of the issue with chat platforms is that they represent a relatively new form of communication, and so we don’t have agreed-upon rules and guidelines for how we’re supposed to behave on them. “People forget that our face-to-face communication has been honed over millions of years in terms of species, but also whatever your life-span is in terms of human behavior,” says Bradley Brummel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, whose research focuses on employee engagement and personality in the workplace. “So much of the rules of how to communicate effectively are automatic, so we don’t have to think about them.” Because we haven’t been talking on Slack for hundreds of years, there aren’t foundations guiding our behavior and interpretations, making it that much easier for the meaning behind someone’s message to be ambiguous.

The study found that people tend to interpret emails as more negative than the sender intended.

Facial expressions, body language, and voice inflections are also crucial components of communication that we’ve come to expect, all of which, of course, are missing from Slack conversations and work emails. “Without these non-verbal cues, it is easy for digital messages to be misconstrued and interpreted in a way that is very different from how the sender intended,” says Stephanie Andel, an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who studies mechanisms of employee stress. “Research by Park, Fritz, and Jex (2015) found that over one-third of employees receive at least one seemingly rude work email each day! This can create a lot of tension among co-workers if not resolved.” Regularly receiving rude messages — or what is interpreted as a rude message — can lead to negative health issues and job dissatisfaction, she says.

A 2016 study out of Syracuse University provides additional evidence that text-based workplace conversations are particularly ripe for misunderstandings. The study found that people tend to interpret emails as more negative than the sender intended; overconfidence in our own ability to understand others’ intentions, or, conversely, pretending that emails generally don’t betray emotion at all, makes this problem worse. Adopting humility about our own ability to detect the correct emotional content of another’s message — opening ourselves up to the possibility that we’re misunderstanding someone’s meaning — as well as understanding that we might be communicating unintentional emotions in our own emails, strengthens our emotional intelligence in the workplace, according to the study author. Stating your interpretation of another’s message, and requesting clarification when you’re not certain what someone else is saying, further decreases the chance that we’ll misunderstand someone else or be misunderstood ourselves.

A more recent study, from 2019, found similar results: Our capacity to correctly interpret the emotional content of an email is low. We are just not good at trying to figure out how the email writer is feeling. The same can be said for chat platforms: without context clues, established guidelines, and an acceptance of our own emotional fumbling, it’s extremely easy to not know what the hell someone is trying to say when they send a message that just says, “hi.”

When we do misstep, it’s less likely that someone will tell us on Slack, according to Brummel. If you say something weird or rude in a face-to-face work meeting, “people might not explicitly say, hey, let me coach you on [what you just said], but you might actually see some hesitation, some non-verbals where you understand that for whatever reason, your message didn’t hit,” he says. But that’s not likely to happen if you make a not-funny joke in a Slack channel. “In my experience, I don’t see people getting that kind of feedback as they jump around these channels, so that means we’re just gonna continue to make the same mistakes over and over.”

This lack of context clues could have particular repercussions regarding racist or sexist microaggressions, which permeate workplaces and can make it difficult for people with marginalized identities to go about their workday safely and normally. An offensive joke made in a work meeting may be accompanied by grimaces or shocked silence, communicating to the offender that their remark doesn’t fly. But online, that shortage of facial expressions and other body language could be implicitly understood by the culprit that their behavior is okay. In an excellent piece for the New York Times’ Smarter Living, writer Hahna Yoon advises readers how to respond to microaggressions in their own workplace. Assessing your own safety when considering how to respond to microaggressions is paramount, she writes; copying and pasting an article that easily explains microaggressions and why they’re harmful can be an easy (or easier, at least) way for people to tell someone they’re microaggressing without having to expend too much emotional labor.

When we do misstep, it’s less likely that someone will tell us on Slack.

Fixing the problem

There are a few things managers and employees can do to keep miscommunications between colleagues on email, Slack, and other chat platforms to a minimum.

Katina Sawyer, an assistant professor of management at George Washington University School of Business in Washington, D.C., recommends that workplaces adopt a culture of task transparency to ensure that people are on the same page on what they’re doing at any given time. “If there are public ways to keep track of who is doing what, employees are more likely to trust the system and feel comfortable working virtually with one another,” she says. A weekly or even daily accounting of everyone’s upcoming tasks and progress on current work decreases the chances that people will misunderstand what they, and their colleagues, are doing at any given time.

Making active use of Slack’s away message function can help, too. If you need to go heads-down on a difficult, absorbing project, communicating to colleagues what you’re doing, and that you’re going to be slow to respond for as long as it takes to finish the project, will assure coworkers that you’re not ignoring them by not responding will reduce the chances of any hurt feelings. It’ll also make it less likely that you’ll snap at someone or say something accidentally rude because you’re more focused on something else than on the conversation. If your workplace doesn’t use Slack, Google Hangouts offers a similar function. Keeping your work calendar up to date by blocking out time when you’ll be unavailable because of project work, and even setting up an out-of-office indicating you’re busy for the next few hours, can help colleagues understand why you’re not responding to their messages as quickly as usual.

Brummel recommends “scene setting,” in which managers and employees get together (virtually, obviously) to discuss what works for them in Slack and email and what they find weird or upsetting. In person, we don’t generally have to lay out the rules of engagement; face-to-face communication is something we’re raised to understand from an early age. But when chat communication is a new world with less-understood rules, it helps to lay it all out in the open. “Just starting by saying, ‘Hey, you know, this is weird for everyone, and we’re not good at this. So let’s talk about how we’re going to use this medium,’ goes a long way,” he says. Clearly laying out which Slack channels are for which uses can prevent inappropriate conversations; employees can also describe how they tend to interpret popular emoji, so that, for example, everyone understands that the slightly-smiling emoji sends a distinctly different message than the classic smiley-face.

When all else fails, over-communicate instead of holding back.

Finding ways to express emotion clearly when you experience it — instead of trying to hint at how you’re feeling and hoping people get the picture — can help prevent misunderstandings, too. Among the findings of the 2019 study mentioned above is that, via email, people tend to interpret positive emotions as more neutral, and neutral emotions as more negative. This makes it all the more important that when you’re happy about something, you’re crystal clear about it: “I absolutely love this! This project turned out incredible.” When you’re unhappy, make that clear, too — and preferably communicate it via phone call or video, says Andel. “Chat should be reserved for brief, everyday conversations, and should not be used to have important, emotional, and/or sensitive conversations. It is best to have those more intense types of discussions through video chat (or at the very least, by phone),” she says.

Sarcasm, additionally, should be either kept to a minimum or made clear (see, for example, Reddit’s habit of ending sarcastic statements with /s, which communicates to readers that the previous statement was not one to be taken seriously). Sarcasm can be difficult to correctly interpret in the best of times; online, without tone of voice and facial expressions to augment it, even very emotionally intelligent people might miss it.

Shannon G. Taylor, an associate professor of management at the University of Central Florida whose work focuses on workplace mistreatment and incivility, agrees with Sawyer that any possibly painful conversations happen via video chat or phone. “One thing I am pretty confident about is that managers should deliver bad news face-to-face. I know it’s not always possible to do this, but you can at least have video.” Zoom burnout, as I’ve written before, is real, though, so relegate video chats to in-depth, serious conversations (not necessarily bad ones!) that require more nuance, and leave the straightforward project check-ins or casual conversations for chat and email.

Less concrete, but no less critical, is understanding that right now, nerves are frayed, many of us are on edge, and people might come across worse than they do ordinarily as a result. You also might be reacting more sensitively to someone’s unclear sarcasm or lack of exclamation marks than you ordinarily would, and for understandable reasons: when you get burned (as we’ve all been, the past three months), you’re going to feel more sensitive than usual. “People are feeling overwhelmed by all the additional demands placed on them while we’re in this very strange period,” says Taylor. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, which contributes to our overall sense of despair and stress as well.”

When all else fails, over-communicate instead of holding back. A “got it” in a face-to-face conversation is enriched with voice inflection and facial expressions that communicate the other half of what the words don’t say; a “got it” in a Slack conversation has been stripped of these emotional mediators, leaving us all floundering in the dark, trying to find meaning where there may or may not be any.

Update: A previous version of this story misstated the name of the university where Stephanie Andel teaches. It is Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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