In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers have identified three commonly used email elements as being highly influential in shaping how others perceive us – regardless of whether those conclusions are accurate.
From the villains who shun spell-check to those whose emails look like they were hit with an exclamation-mark grenade, it seems no one is safe from judgment after hitting send.
“Very subtle little things you might not think about when writing an email -like the kind of punctuation you use, for example -actually have an effect on the people reading that message,” says study co-author Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois. “If you’re emailing a friend, they’re not going to change their opinion of you based on how the message is put together. But for first impressions, we find these (variables) really matter.”
The new study, co-authored by Chelsea Rae De Jonge, which appears in a future issue of Social Psychological & Personality Science, looks at three elements: first person versus third person, typographical errors, and punctuation.
Emails written in the third person conveyed a sense of formality that caused study participants to believe the message had come from someone in a supervisory position. It also saw readers presume the sender was angry, as opposed to the perceived intimacy of first-person emails.
“Third person comes across as cold and distant,” says McAndrew. “You’re removing yourself from the interaction, in a way.”
Emails riddled with errors gave readers the impression that the sender was apathetic. McAndrew believes this effect would be particularly strong with an older demographic that, unlike the college-aged group in his study, didn’t grow up with things like text-messaging. “Younger people are accustomed to (typographical errors), whereas someone older might take it more personally, or make stronger judgments about the intellect of the person sending the message,” he explains.
Finally, punctuation proved highly influential in moulding people’s opinions.
Emails with no question marks or exclamation points were perceived as being sent by a superior, while those that included lots of question marks and exclamation points were interpreted as coming from a subordinate.
In general, question marks conveyed anger and confusion, while exclamation points, as you might expect, communicated happiness. The absence of both types of punctuation implied apathy, and a high frequency of such punctuation caused readers to assume the sender was female.
“I guess it’s the old stereotype of women being more expressive and emotional. A text message or email that’s chock-full of question marks and exclamation points comes across as a little girlie, for lack of a better way to phrase it,” says McAndrew, adding wryly: “Real men don’t use punctuation; they use caveman-like direct, short sentences.”