How do the emails that we send to our bosses differ from those we send to colleagues or subordinates?
For one thing, people tend to be a lot more polite and deferential to those who rank above them. For another, we tend to chose our words much more carefully when speaking up the corporate ladder. If you work in any kind of white-collar job, you've probably had the experience of carefully crafting an email to a boss, versus banging one out to your colleague or subordinate.
Research shows those differences are actually sharp enough that they can be used to predict whether a random email is going up or down the corporate ladder. Give it a shot for yourself: Can you guess which of these real-life e-mails below was sent from an employee to a boss, and which was sent from a boss to an employee?
The emails above come from a paper by Eric Gilbert of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who studied about 2,000 communications sent by bosses and employees to see what the kind of language people use can tell us about the corporate hierarchy. The study found that the kinds of words and phrases that people use varied significantly depending on whether the email was going up or down the corporate hierarchy.
The emails above originally came from Enron Corporation, a Houston-based energy and services company where executives carried out extensive accounting fraud before getting caught at the end of 2001. As part of the investigation into Enron, federal officials made the company release thousands of internal emails. Today, that trove of emails provides a valuable resource for linguists and other researchers.
Gilbert’s study found that the emails contained certain words and phrases that indicate that the sender ranks below the receiver. For example, he describes phrases like “thought you would” as a kind of hedging politeness that people use when they talk to others who rank above them.
Interestingly, Gilbert found that the word “attach” was far more likely to appear in emails from employees to bosses than vice versa – evidence that most documents travel up in the corporate hierarchy. Another interesting – and kind of sad – example is “weekend.” The word was more likely to appear in emails from subordinates to superiors, often because employees were offering to be available or do work over the weekend.
The study found other evidence that suggests that people craft emails to their bosses far more carefully than to their subordinates. Bosses tended to make a lot more spelling errors, and their emails to employees were often curt.
The study found that employees writing to bosses also used fewer words that signal what Gilbert calls “cognitive processes” – that people were working out their ideas as they wrote. “It seems reasonable to think that people only go to their bosses when they have an answer, not when they want to work out the answer,” Gilbert writes.
There were also plenty of words and phrases that signaled that emails were traveling across or down the corporate ladder. “Let’s talk” and “let’s discuss,” for example, were pretty much reserved for emails from bosses to employees. As Gilbert writes, past research has shown how bosses use “hedging phrases” and “collective talk” to make direct commands seem nicer – “when you have the time” as a euphemism for “now,” or “let’s all give it a try.”
Here are some of the phrases that the study found are more likely to be included in emails that are going up the corporate ladder (Rosie Cima of Priceonomics has graphed some of these phrases):
“thought you would”
“that we might”
“we can talk”
“do we want”
And here are some that are more likely to travel down:
“can you help”
“the problem is”
Why does the language that employees and employers use diverge so much? There are likely a few reasons. One is just their different job descriptions – employees engage in more detailed tasks and report their progress to their superiors, while bosses are responsible for coordinating the bigger picture and making sure everyone stays on track.
Part of it also is likely conventions surrounding politeness; people tend to be more concerned with using respectful language to those who rank above them. Finally, some of the difference is what anthropologists call “performance”: People simply try to act like employees and bosses are expected to act. “At work, email is the performance of power and hierarchy captured in text,” says Gilbert.
Beyond being an interesting window into the ways that people use language to project and manage power relationships, the study has some practical applications, Gilbert argues. Researchers could use the data to design an email service that could detect when somebody above you in the hierarchy is emailing you and send you an alert, so you can appear to be always attentive.
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