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E-Male: Are women emailing 'wrong'?

Jenna Luxon takes a look at the link between gender and emailing style and asks why it is that women face more pressure to change the way they communicate in the workplace

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Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

I have been happily emailing since the age of ten when my parents first set me up with an email account that I predominantly used for Club Penguin-based admin. I am no stranger to writing a ‘to whom it may concern’ or tossing up the choices between a ‘best wishes’ and a ‘kind regards’. In fact, during my time at York I have at times run up to five email accounts at once whilst being the secretary for various societies.

So, it took me by surprise last month when I discovered that after all this time I'd been emailing ‘wrong’ all along. Scrolling through Instagram or TikTok over the past few months, I have frequently come across videos of women re-reading their work emails and changing their wording to match the tone of their male colleague.

This trend started with a TikTok video by @vivsmee posted in February this year, showing her trying to match her emailing style to her male peers. Since it was posted, this video has been viewed around four million times and replicated by many others. In the original video, Vivien can be seen ‘updating her emailing style to match her male colleagues’ by removing an exclamation mark and changing the phrase ‘I think the data is inconsistent to ‘the data is inconsistent’.

This video has not only led to a trend, with others creating videos of themselves doing similar, but has also prompted a broader conversation about the extent to which a person’s gender is linked to their emailing style - and, beyond that, how gender and power relations play out through language in the workplace.

Although currently a TikTok trend, the idea that women and men speak and indeed email differently is nothing new, with research suggesting women are more likely to use exclamation marks in emails being reported in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication back in 2006. Over the past decade, it has often been claimed, particularly in ‘lean in’ feminism resources, that when writing emails in the workplace women are more likely than men to use exclamation marks, apologetic language and qualify their statements with mitigating phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’.

The extent to which such claims are factual is highly debated within the linguistic community, as it is not easy to draw clear distinctions between genders and speaking or writing styles. As gender is a social construct to begin with, and language is so heavily context dependent, to make any absolutist statements such as "women write one way and men write another" is uwise and indeed inaccurate.

However, with this caveat in mind, I decided to take a look at my emails sent throughout the course of my time at York and see whether any of these patterns of the "female emailing style" came up and how frequently.

Using the advanced search tool on Gmail to filter through all my sent emails, I was able to quickly identify the number of times I had used apologetic language, qualified my statement and used the dreaded exclamation mark.

As previously mentioned, I have certainly run my fair share of email accounts during my time at York, so for this foray into email analysis I focused solely on my personal university email account.

Between starting university in September 2018 and the time of writing in June 2021 I have, conveniently, sent exactly 250 emails. My search began with apologies, which, according to my research, is supposedly a classic feature of female emailing style. Of all the 250 emails I have sent from my university account during my time at York, 11 percent included the word ‘sorry’; which prompted the question: what have I got to apologise for so frequently?

On closer inspection, it appeared that I was generally using the word sorry in the phrase ‘sorry to bother you’ when asking someone at the university for help or advice. Given that most if not all the people I was emailing for help are paid as part of their job to assist me, it seems I regularly apologise for asking people to do their job.

I also apologised for being unwell and missing something I was meant to attend or, in true pandemic fashion, apologising for my terrible Wi-Fi cutting out during a meeting of some kind.

Next up was qualifying. My reading suggested that ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ are the most common qualifiers used and indeed I found that 20 percent of my emails included the phrase ‘I think’ and 19 percent ‘I feel’. Although it's worth noting here that these are not distinct categories and may have crossed over considerably.

These phrases were generally used to describe my understanding of academic topics before asking the recipient to explain a part I did not understand. I am not sure if their use therefore shows female traits or just traits of being a typically confused student.

The other headline figures were that 40 percent of my emails included the word ‘please', 64 percent included ‘thank you’, ten percent of which had been upgraded to a ‘thank you very much’.

And finally, the exclamation marks total. I was confident that nearly all my emails would include an exclamation mark, as I liberally pepper them through my writing in any format. So, I was surprised to find that only 38 percent of my emails included an exclamation mark; which, although it may sound like a lot to some, was impressively low given my penchant for hyperbole.

So, what did this research tell me? Apart from the fact that I cannot let go of my degree and my love for quantitative content analysis, nothing much without comparison. I am but one woman and these findings of course cannot be extrapolated to all women.

However, it is clear that I demonstrate many of the characteristics described in research as typically female qualities. Over one in ten of my emails included an apology, one in five included a qualifier of some kind and over one in three included a dreaded exclamation mark.

So in spite of its reductionist basis, it would appear that by the criteria set out on TikTok and through linguistic research, I do indeed email like a woman and therefore could do with changing my style to match my male peers by scrapping mitigation and calming down on the exclamation.

This female way of emailing is represented as undesirable as whilst it is more friendly, it reads as less confident and crucially less professional.

But is this just a classic example of giving a societal problem an individual solution? Lets ignore all the other factors that may affect emailing style such as class, age or ethnicity and say, for argument’s sake, that in the same context men and women are generally seen to be emailing differently. Why is it that we automatically read the male patterns of communication as those that are professional and what women should be aiming for?

Women are already disadvantaged in the workplace, something that could arguably explain why they are more likely to mitigate their opinions and make an extra effort to be polite in the first place. In a patriarchal system, women are not equally accepted and supported in many professional environments hence we do not see equal patterns of communication.

And yet despite being the ones at a disadvantage, women are still expected to be the ones to change, to put in extra effort to change how they communicate only to hold up the structure that sees male ways of doing things as intrinsically more professional.

It is yet another case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. When women adopt supposedly masculine patterns of behaviour and communication in the workplace they can face backlash for being too cold and aggressive and yet if they do not then they are not professional enough.

It's almost like the problem is not with women and how they communicate at all, but is with societal structures that make women unwelcome in the workplace and that assume whatever men typically do must be appropriate and professional and that women should just blindly follow that.

The point of communication in any form is to get your meaning across clearly. This can be done in many different ways. In the case of email, a style of communication which by lacking any paralinguistic features like eye contact, or body language can be hard to interpret tone from, putting in extra effort to soften your meaning by mitigating or being polite can be very helpful. And indeed, being able to write in an unapologetic and forthright style is also a valuable tool.

We should have already moved beyond the ‘women are from Venus, men are from Mars’ way of thinking that tells us women apologise and men are professional. We should be able to understand that whilst patterns may exist for differences in gender and communication style these are the result of social constructions.

This is not about a right and a wrong way of doing things. Women are not emailing ‘wrong’ and they do not need to change to fit in with a patriarchal system that tells them whatever they are doing is not quite right.

Good communicators will be able to use lots of different techniques and tones to get their message across effectively. The thinking that links professional emailing to ‘male emailing’ is rooted in patriarchal thought and is not a reason for women to be encouraged to cut their exclamation marks!

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