What can we learn from email mind games?


Over drinks the other night, a friend confessed that she’s been spending an inordinate amount of time puzzling over emails from a new guy in her life. But it wasn’t the kind of decoding she was used to doing, given that she has no romantic interest in him whatsoever. Rather, they were emails from her new boss, who – despite being articulate in person – has a habit of sending her lower case rants that are almost entirely devoid of punctuation.  His emails are often brimming with typos and abbreviations, with a typical message being: “meeting in ten can you pls make sure everynes there pls. Tks.”

It’s awkward to admit you literally cannot understand someone – especially when it happens outside of a crowded small bar environment.  But the strange thing is that no one else in her team seems to mind. He is a busy person, they assume, and so probably doesn’t have time to bother with things like vowels and full sentences. What’s more, she has a sneaking suspicion that he is actually being seen as more competent by his colleagues because of his brusque corresponding style.

In a recent Huffington Post article, author Susan Cain speaks of her brush with the common “peremptory email” during her time on Wall Street – where question marks in requests are pointedly avoided. (“Can you call me to discuss.” Or “When should we meet for dinner”). To Cain, these aren’t mistakes, but deliberate social cues in an attempt to “signal power.”

Surprisingly, it’s been proven to work. According to a study conducted by Knox College in Galesburg, researcher Frank McAndrew and his team recruited 166 undergraduates to read emails with variation in style and grammar.  They found that "writers whose emails included more errors were believed to be more apathetic…and participants were more likely to assume the writer was a superior."  Unlike ‘etiquette problems’ such as the shouty all caps and the sneaky cc-ing of superiors, the abrupt, typo-ridden email is perceived to be a sign of social dominance – the implication being, “I’m too busy to fix typos and spell words in full and you’re not important enough for me to make an effort.”


For those who believe there’s no point overthinking about the way we write, psychologist James Pennebaker begs to differ. In fact, he argues that you can tell everything from gender, social status, wealth and power dynamics between two people by looking at the way they use ‘function words’ alone  -- that is, filler words like “this, I, an, the, we” that normally get filtered straight out in a Google Search.

Pennebaker calls these the ‘connective tissue of language’ and in his book, The Secret Life of Pronouns, he and his team of researchers analysed the use of function words in thousands of letters, books, tweets, emails and other texts and found that they have the ability to “reveal our inner lives”.

Function words are things like pronouns (such as I, you, they), articles (a, an, the), prepositions (to, of, for) and auxiliary verbs (is, am, have). "These are the words that we don't pay attention to, and they're the ones that are so interesting," says Pennebaker in an NPR interview.

Specifically, he claims that you can easily tell the power dynamic between two people and their relative social status by how often they use the word “I” in a written or verbal exchange.

“One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status,” he says.  

Contrary to what most people might expect, the most self-assured people aren’t the ones who use “I-words” most frequently. Apparently, this is because the person who has less power in an interaction is usually more aware of how they’re coming across, so the plethora of "I"s almost serves as a form of verbal fidgeting. "People's pronouns track their focus of attention. If someone is anxious, self-conscious, in pain or depressed, they pay more attention to themselves,” writes Pennebaker.

In his book, he gave the following example of an exchange between himself and an undergraduate student called Pam. 


Dear Dr. Pennebaker:

I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures andI've learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?



Dear Pam -

This would be great. This week isn't good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30. It will be good to see you.

Jamie Pennebaker


In his exchange with Pam, his response - while friendly - is entirely "I" free. In contrast, in a separate email to the dean of the faculty, the use of "I"s in his email jumped visibly. 

Pennebaker and his team also found that when two people get a long, their language will also mimic each other’s. It’s a kind of subconscious verbal mirroring that explains why friends and in groups often “sound similar” or have the same language quirks. "When two people are paying close attention, they use language in the same way," he says. "And it's one of these things that humans do automatically." They aren't aware of it, but if you look closely at their language, count up their use of "I," and "the," and "and", you can see it.”

"The words that people generate in their lifetimes are like fingerprints,” writes Pennebaker. Given  that the average worker spends approximately 111 workdays dealing with emails, it certainly makes observing your work inbox a lot more interesting than analysing a cryptic post-date text.