Tate Williams

Emails to bosses all use the same, wimpy wording

Tate Williams February 16, 2012

If you’re like me, maybe 70-90% of your work communication now happens over the computer, and a quick scan of past emails will probably reveal a cringe-worthy amount of repeated phrasing: sounds good, works for me, when you get a chance, watch this video of a hedgehog, etc.

What might surprise you (or not, if your job involves a lot of TPS reports), is that these textual tools in our office toolbelt appear to be pretty widespread, and some of them are heavily tied to certain power dynamics. In other words, there seems to be a common language of workplace hierarchy.

A statistical analysis of a certain notorious megacorporation’s massive bank of stored emails found that some words are strongly tied to interactions from underling to superior, and vice versa. The analysis, from Georgia Tech’s Eric Gilbert, compiled the a list of what phrasings indicated hierarchy.

Top phrases that indicate an email heading up a corporate hierarchy:

  • the ability to
  • I took
  • are available
  • kitchen
  • thought you would
Top phrases that indicate email traveling down a hierarchy or laterally:
  • have you been
  • you gave
  • we are in
  • title
  • need in

A couple of findings I thought you would find interesting — “weekend” was a common word in upward communications, which may suggest employees dropping hints of working hard during off hours. The only curse word, “shit,” was indicative of upward emails. Often the words are pretty intuitive, suggesting that employees are couching things in polite or hedging phrasing. And somewhat sadly, the words used in emails going up the hierarchy are less likely to indicate “active thinking” or working things out.

Equally interesting, although adding some weaknesses to the study, is where the data came from — Enron. After the energy goliath collapsed as an icon of corporate greed and corruption in 2001, it left behind a smarmy, well-dressed corpse of 517,431 email messages sent by 151people over nearly four years. The emails have been a source of multiple studies on computing and communication. The team did their best to statistically weigh out factors singular to Enron and its downfall, but acknowledged that corporation’s failings come with the package. “The models build on data from a profoundly dishonest company which ultimately fell apart. At the same time, the Enron email corpus is without parallel in the research community.”

The analysis is by no means definitive, but it does raise a lot of good questions about why we say what we do, and how the unspoken rules of social interaction play out on computer screens. The researchers also suggest the dataset could be used for applications that are sensitive to the hierarchy of parties involved, say, a program that deletes any message including “hmmm yeah.” Or at the very least, a filter that cuts out all the phrases that make you sound like a guy that worked at Enron.

In the meantime, I’d like to take this opportunity to spread the gospel of the Email Charter. Sign it. Live it. 

Phrases that Signal Workplace Hierarchy (pdf), Georgia Institute of Technology School of Interactive Computing.

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