Want to Say 'I Love You'? Try Typing It Out

Surprised researchers find that, when the topic is love, we tend to communicate emotions more effectively using email rather than voicemail.
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(Photo: dkART/Shutterstock)

(Photo: dkART/Shutterstock)

So you meet someone special in a social situation and hit it off. You exchange contact information, which—as you realize the next day—presents you with two options: You can call, and leave a voicemail if he or she doesn't pick up, or you can write an email.

Which do you choose? Newly published research suggests you should ignore the instinct that tells you voicemail is a more personal and intimate way to connect. Email, it seems, is by far the better choice.

Alan Dennis of Indiana University and Taylor Wells of California State University–Sacramento report that people who send romantic emails get more emotionally aroused, and use stronger, more emotional language, than those who leave voicemails.

"When writing romantic e-mails, senders consciously or subconsciously added more positive content to their messages, perhaps to compensate for the medium's inability to convey vocal tone."

What's more, since people tend to respond to messages using the same medium, the other person will likely experience similarly heightened emotions when he or she emails back.

"When you compose an e-mail, you feel greater emotional arousal than if you send the same message using a voice mail, even if you are not consciously aware of it," the researchers write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. Confirming what Marshall McLuhan told us decades ago, they find that one's choice of medium "induces emotional responses, and influences what is communicated."

Dennis and Wells' study featured 72 undergraduates who were instructed to convey two different messages—one utilitarian, one romantic—via both voicemail and email. As they did so, their emotional response was recorded by measuring the movement of their facial muscles, as well as their skin conductance level.

To the researchers' surprise, they found sending emails—the less "natural" means of communication—elicited greater emotional arousal in senders, and led to the use of "stronger, more arousing language" compared to voicemail messages. This was even true of the utilitarian messages, but was especially pronounced for the romantic ones.

"When writing romantic e-mails, senders consciously or subconsciously added more positive content to their messages, perhaps to compensate for the medium's inability to convey vocal tone," Dennis and Wells write. "Our participants naturally adapted to the limitations of the media."

They also noted that, unlike a voicemail, email "enables senders to modify the content as messages are composed." In other words, you can re-word your message for maximum impact. This requires deeper thought than simply leaving a voice message, and the researchers surmise that extra effort "may increase arousal."

"We found that romantic e-mail messages contained the most positive emotional content (and) romantic voice mails contained the least positive emotional content" of the four types of messages, the researchers add. Perhaps people felt awkward leaving voice messages, and as a result opted for more neutral language—just the sort of disconnect between form and content that can inadvertently leave a mixed impression.

The study did not look at how such messages are received. But it stands to reason that greater emotional content, delivered while the sender was in a higher state of emotional arousal, will be more likely to come across as genuine, and increase the odds of a positive response.

So "Call Me, Maybe"? Better to opt for email.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.

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