The more important you are, the worse your email looks

From: Mike Masnick (
Date: Thu Jan 11 2001 - 11:36:12 PST

Okay, so what we've all known for a while has now been confirmed:

TomWhore is the most important person here on FoRK.



Thursday, January 11, 2001

if yr e-mail looks like this, u must be the boss

By Gwen Florio
Trying to climb the corporate ladder? Doing the old
act-like-an-executive-and-be-seen-as-one routine?

That's the traditional way. Wear the suit, toss the big words around, dot
your i's and cross your t's.

About that last item. If you really want to come across as top-level
management, you'd write:

like this. in yr e-mail, anyway. short, sloppy & to the poitn. got that?

"It shouldn't pan out," acknowledged David A. Owens, an assistant professor
of management at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management.

But it does.

Owens, who studies the cues that indicate rank in organizations, spent an
entire year with one corporation where all 100 employees had the same
title: engineer. That sort of thing sounds good on paper, he said, but it
makes people nervous. Bluntly put, worker bees need to know whom to kiss up

"I was looking at things like who talked in meetings, where did people sit
in meetings, how much RAM was in their computers, where was their parking

Much of what he noted was pretty predictable - "He wears expensive ties, so
everybody should listen to him. Or, he drove up in an expensive Porsche."

Then, he said, "I began looking at e-mail."

He expected more of the same: The higher the rank, the more formal the e-mail.

He found exactly the opposite.

it was otfen terse, typo-ridden and all in lower-case.

"High-status employees just don't pay attention" to such things as grammar
and spelling, he said. "They don't need to."

Nereu Florencio "Ned" Kock Jr., assistant professor of management
information systems at Temple University's Fox School of Business and
Management, explained it - via e-mail - thusly:

"In e-mail communication between two individuals X and Y, where X's rank is
higher than Y, usually Y will be the one trying to impress X, not the other
way around. So, chances are that X will be less careful when preparing
e-mails to Y (and be more worried about the 'content' being conveyed), than
Y to X."

Or, as Owens put it: "If I'm a CEO and I send a message and yeah, it has a
typo, that doesn't mean anything to me. ... It's like going to a meeting
and everyone was wearing a tie but one person. Guess who that one person was?"

oh. must be nice.

At this point, if you're a peon, you might be feeling a tad resentful.
Because, if you've got any survival smarts at all, you know that you really
can't toss the tie - or trade in your pumps for Doc Martens - any more than
you can stop spell-checking your e-mail.

Here's something to make you feel better: Some CEOs send sloppy e-mails not
just because they can but because they're dummies when it comes to matters

"This is totally unscientific," John DeAngelo, associate dean for
information technology in Temple's Fox school, warned, before sharing
observations of honchos he has known. "Four or five or six years ago, they
didn't want to touch a computer. They said, in effect, 'I have people who
do that for me.' "

No longer.

"Now everyone has to minimally understand and use e-mail. Maybe these
people are late in the game and don't know the niceties and conventions
that govern this thing."

The niceties to which DeAngelo referred vary among organizations. In
academia, he said, e-mail tends to be "very complex, very erudite, well
thought-out and obviously spell-checked."

There are lots of guides - in print, as well as online - that tell you
that's the only way to send e-mail. The Elements of E-Mail Style:
Communicate Effectively via Electronic Mail devotes 157 pages to the
subject. PC World magazine managed to boil the subject down to a short
article, which urged perfect spelling and grammar in e-mail.

guess those guys never talked to owens.

Of course, context is everything.

Meredith Fischer is vice president of communications for Pitney Bowes,
which studies e-mail use.

She cited the example of a Silicon Valley dot-com that conducted nearly all
of its business via extremely informal e-mail. "There were no caps, they
used short sentences, there were no niceties." This worked fine within the
corporation, she said, but trouble arose when the dot-com started working
with a German firm.

"It caused such an issue," she said. The California company's reliance on
e-mail "was perceived as terse, negative and not conducive to the formation
of a business relationship. They had to put somebody on a plane and send
them to Germany for two weeks."

Which brings up an important point. No matter how much business is done via
e-mail, at some point it's crucial to talk to the other person.

"When people are trying to build business relationships, voice contact is
still very important," Fischer said. "If you can't have a face-to-face
meeting, which is still kind of the gold standard of all human interaction,
a real-time telephone conversation is the next-best thing."

Kock, too, noted in his e-mail that, "One of the traits of senior managers
. . . is that they consistently prefer FtF [face-to-face] communication
over other forms of communication."

and therein lies the message for all of us in the trenches. forget
polishing & grooming that e-mail to perfection. forget, even, aping
mangeamnet-style typos & informalty. seek out your boss and suck up in
person. and ... gd luck!


Gwen Florio's e-mail address is 

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