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Email tone and status: !s, friendliness, 'please', etc.

1 Post author: tog 03 May 2014 07:05PM

Do the following things in email tone lower status?:

  • Exclamation marks
  • Friendliness
  • Saying 'please', or 'it'd be great if'
  • Saying 'you don't have to do this, but...'
  • Saying 'sorry' (e.g. 'sorry to bother you')
  • Signing of with 'Thanks!'
My impression is that they don't, because I haven't seen people who do this as low status. But they've all been people who are clearly high status anyway, due to their professional positions.

It'd be great to get any pointers on this, as I worry I do all these things. Sorry if there's already a discussion of this, I did try looking! Thanks!

Comments (21)

Comment author: ChristianKl 03 May 2014 08:04:53PM *  13 points [-]

Status depends a lot on the context. There a strange idea going around that we should always try to communicate in the way that signals the highest status. That isn't the case.

On LW we had a review that suggest that one of the most useful social skills for career advancement is to appear modest. Apologizing is also important.

I think 'sorry to bother you' is a signal that you believe that the person you are emailing is higher status then you. For me that sentence has no useful information value. In some contexts I even perceive it as passive aggressive.

Comment author: tog 03 May 2014 08:23:06PM 1 point [-]

Point taken. I come across as passive aggressive when I don't mean to, so that's helpful. Lack of useful information value isn't a problem for most (non-LW) people though.

Comment author: ChristianKl 03 May 2014 09:51:58PM 13 points [-]

It depends on the amount of emails the person you are writing to gets. If you write to a high status person who gets 100 emails per day, being concise is important. There are a lot of people who think they spend too much time with email and who want to spend less time on email.

Let's say I was a meetup and had an interesting discussion with someone. In it he referred to a scientific paper but when you come home you have forgotten the specific paper.

You could write the person: "Sorry to bother you but could you please tell me the name of the paper you spoke about yesterday? Of course only if you don't have to do this, if you don't find easily."

You could also write: "I really enjoyed our conversation about topic X yesterday. You referred to a paper about topic X, making point Y? Can you send me the link?"

The second version is more likely to received positively. The fact that you tell me you enjoyed the conversation with me is information. It's friendly. Telling me specifically what paper you want helps me. It makes it easier for me to help you because I don't have to go back and reply the conversation in my mind to find with paper you could mean.

As a general rule, say sorry when you make mistake. Apologize for your mistakes. Don't say sorry when you aren't making mistakes.

If you want to be nice and friendly, give the other person a compliment. Given out compliments implies that you have a status that's high enough that the other person cares about your opinion. It also validates the other person.

Getting a compliment puts me in a positive mood. Reading "sorry to bother you" rather puts me in a negative mood.

Comment author: Error 05 May 2014 07:27:17PM 2 points [-]

As a general rule, say sorry when you make mistake. Apologize for your mistakes. Don't say sorry when you aren't making mistakes.

I figured this out at some point, but I really wish I had figured it out fifteen years earlier.

I would add an exception to the rule: I recall someone around here (I think quoting HPMoR) distinguishing between apology as regret and apology as submission. Some people only hear the latter. The rule does not work with them. They can usually be identified by explicitly demanding apologies or at least angling for them. Someone you have actually wronged probably doesn't want an apology; they either want you to go away, or they want you to suffer.

Comment author: ChristianKl 05 May 2014 10:17:26PM 4 points [-]

Someone you have actually wronged probably doesn't want an apology; they either want you to go away, or they want you to suffer.

If I have an appointment with you and I'm 20 minutes late then I have wronged you. That usually doesn't mean that you want me to go away or want me to suffer. On the other hand an apology makes it clear that I admit that I made a mistake, so they don't have to chide me for affair and we can move on and put our energy somewhere more productive.

I think that open communication and sharing information is a good default strategy even when there are cases where it doesn't work. Sometimes it means you cooperate in prisoner dilemmas where the other person defects but it's still a good default.

Unfortunately I'm still a bit underread on the topic of how to best apologize, but I think they are important. Focusing on sharing information like apologies for mistakes and genuine compliments is a white hat social strategy. It believe it's a lot more useful than thinking in terms of game theory and status competitions.

Comment author: ThisSpaceAvailable 07 May 2014 10:27:26PM 0 points [-]

They can usually be identified by explicitly demanding apologies or at least angling for them.

Grammatically, this sentence means "If you demand apologies, that is a way for you to identify these people", but I think that you meant "They can usually be identified by their habit of explicitly demanding apologies". Passive voice can be tricky.

Comment author: seez 04 May 2014 02:40:40AM 0 points [-]

If you're really struggling, you might try looking over some emails that have been sent to you by a well-liked successful person of similar status that you admire and know well. Then, you can emulate zir tone until you get habituated to it and do it naturally.

Comment author: Dagon 03 May 2014 09:07:53PM 5 points [-]

Signaling and status is way more complex than that. Which is unsurprising, given how important it is and has been in our evolutionary environment.

There is no universal scale of "high" and "low" status, everything is relative to the people, roles, and situation. And of course, the interpretation of various behaviors in a context changes over time as people seek to emulate or distinguish themselves from others.

If you have infinite bandwidth, you should probably develop a personal brand (or rather, a set of brands which you use in different situations or with different people). Do so based on observation of people you'd like to be associated with and distinguished from in the minds of your correspondents, and update it over time as styles (and comparison cohorts) change.

If (like me), you don't have that kind of social-mental power, just try to match your expected audience's expectations.

Comment author: TylerJay 05 May 2014 04:32:22PM 3 points [-]

"Please" is commonly used as a polite way to give an order. Whenever I'm delegating a task via email, I don't say "Get this done by the end of the day," I say "Please get this done by the end of the day." I personally think it's rude to give direct orders by email without a "please" in there. This applies both to communicating with coworkers and external contacts.

Comment author: witzvo 04 May 2014 03:55:38AM 3 points [-]

I think the use of exclamation points should be tastefully rare, or it does give the wrong impression.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 12 May 2014 01:52:58PM *  1 point [-]

People should treat emphasis as a limited resource. If we use too many exclamation points, too many italics, too many bold letters, too many underlines, too many colored fonts, too many... of whatever horrors people invent... it just makes readers turn off their attention and skip the emphasised parts, because there was so many of them.

The fact that the writer did not realize this is low-status, and in extreme cases could be even evidence for mental imbalance. (Here is a web page of some crazy cult, as a specific example.)

Comment author: Mestroyer 04 May 2014 03:27:11AM 3 points [-]

My impression is that they don't, because I haven't seen people who do this as low status. But they've all been people who are clearly high status anyway, due to their professional positions.

This is a bad template for reasoning about status in general, because of countersignaling.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 04 May 2014 04:28:24AM 6 points [-]

I've seen a claim that carefully proof-read emails signal low status, compared to a counter-signalling dashed off email from a high-status person. What do you thimk?

Comment author: TylerJay 07 May 2014 10:04:18PM 3 points [-]

I think it's more likely that this is just a case of people using something as evidence for whatever they already believe. If an important person sends an email with spelling or grammar mistakes, you attribute it to them being busy and not thinking you're important enough. If an unimportant person sends an email with spelling or grammar mistakes, you think it's because they're stupid or lazy.

However, personally, I think spelling and grammar mistakes in emails always signals something "bad," whether it's that they don't pay attention to detail, don't have respect for who they're talking to, are not intelligent, etc.

Comment author: bbleeker 05 May 2014 02:27:53PM 1 point [-]

What do you thimk?

I see what you did there. :-)

Comment author: Kawoomba 03 May 2014 07:17:51PM 3 points [-]

Hell no!

(This is a test.)

Comment author: tog 03 May 2014 08:21:40PM 1 point [-]

Result: it didn't lower your status in that context.

Comment author: Kawoomba 03 May 2014 08:40:31PM 5 points [-]

Sorry to bother you with such a test! You don't have to do this, but I guess this is test phase 2. Please, it'd be great if you could participate further. :-)

Thanks!

Comment author: seez 04 May 2014 02:35:12AM 4 points [-]

Yeah, sounds nervous and self-effacing to me. Also overly emotionally loaded for a simple message. Good test though!

Comment author: Jinoc 03 May 2014 07:59:34PM 0 points [-]

What do you mean exactly by "lower status" ? Do they lower the perceived status of the writer, or do they convey the idea that the reader has lower status than the writer ?

Exclamation marks friendliness, "it'd be great if" and "Thanks!" I'd perceive as somewhat condescending in an email exchange with someone I didn't know well, whereas "you don't have to do this but" and "sorry to bother you" I'd read as delaying expressions and thus status-lowering for the writer.

But again, it's a matter of context. In an informal email exchange I wouldn't worry too much about these things.

Comment author: tog 03 May 2014 08:23:32PM 0 points [-]

The writer.