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Email and Lying

10-28-08

It is not unusual for experienced, practicing civil litigators to discuss how much things have changed since e-discovery has taken off. One of the topics that comes up most often in these discussions is how different email portrays people from when attorneys met them in person. This disparity is often settled in favor of documents over testimony. However, two recent studies may shed some light on one of the factors confounding a clear understanding of email behavior.

The studies are reviewed in a paper entitled Being Honest Online: The Finer Points of Lying in Online Ultimatum Bargaining, by Liuba Belkin and Terri Kurtzberg of Rutgers University and Charles Naquin of DePaul University. Not only did the studies find that “email is the most deceptive form of communications in the workplace even more so than more traditional kinds of written communications, like pen and paper.” They also found that “people actually feel justified when lying using email.” The authors opine that people know that the typical non-verbal channels of communication are removed and can therefore be exploited. However, that does not necessarily explain why email would be worse than pen and paper communication.

One problem with email, of course is that often people have emotional reactions to what they read since tone is absent and if those who tend to have a skeptical view of the sender may pick up a false negative tone and reply in an unprofessional, yet very human way—to hurt. Sometimes people lie to hurt others. Of course, this sort of dysfunction has been attacked in recent years by corporate training programs from lawyers reminding people if it’s in email, It could be in the newspaper tomorrow. Of course, the “jury is out” on the effectiveness of those training programs.

 

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