Over-Estimating The Persuasive Value Of Electronic Communications

Face-to-face communications (photo by Marilyn Swanson)

By: Donald L Swanson

Electronic communications (e.g., emails and texts) fail to convey the non-verbal cues that are readily apparent in face-to-face communications. 

That’s an unsurprising conclusion from a study titled, “Ask in person: You’re less persuasive than you think over email.”  [Fn. 1]


Email and text communications are becoming, or have already become, the dominant means of interacting with others.  That’s because, in part, email and text communications are more convenient, and often more comfortable, than face-to-face communications.

Such a change in communication modes is all well and good, as long as emailers and texters realize the limitations of their communications.

Additional Research

Prior research has focused on the willingness of email recipients to trust email content.  This “Ask in person” study changes the focus to how the creators of such content view its trustworthiness.

Prior research has found that people underestimate the likelihood that strangers will comply with their direct requests. This study looks further and finds that:

  • such “underestimation-of-compliance effect” is limited to requests made face-to-face; while
  • direct requests made by email result in the opposite—an overestimation-of-compliance.

Failure to Appreciate

Such underestimations and overestimations arise because requesters fail to appreciate two important facts.

First, requesters fail to appreciate the implicit trust that is conveyed in face-to-face interactions.  People feel awkward and uncomfortable saying “no” in face-to-face communications, because the “no” response, (i) insinuates something negative about the requester, and (ii) creates a sense of letting someone down.  Requesters fail to recognize the pressure face-to-face targets actually feel to comply, and requesters wrongly assume it is easy—and therefore likely—for targets to say “no.”

Second, requesters fail to appreciate the suspicion, and resulting lack of empathy, with which targets view email requests from strangers.  Email restricts the nonverbal cues that generate trust and empathy.  That makes it difficult for the requester to appear well-meaning and sympathetic.  Requesters fail to recognize that, what their email targets see, is a suspicious email from a stranger, which generates little empathy.


So, the result is this: if people overestimate the effectiveness of their own emails and texts, they may choose an inferior means of influencing others, without recognizing the downsides.   

One way to guard against making such an inferior choice is for the emailer or texter, before hitting “send,” to reflect upon an experience of receiving a similar electronic communication.  That will help the sender better appreciate the perspective of the recipient.


If a picture paints a thousand words, face-to-face communications reveal a thousand non-verbal cues. 

That’s the lesson of the “Ask in person” study.  And it’s a lesson that can be applied in many personal and professional contexts—including negotiations and mediations.


Footnote 1.  The study is authored by Mahdi Roghanizd and Vanessa Bohns, and is published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (March 2017).

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