Last week, IBM revealed its supercomputer Watson can now analyse your emails to determine the emotions behind them. Simply paste in your message and Watson will not only tell you whether or not your words sound overly casual, short, or aggressive, but it will also suggest synonyms to correct the tone.
I find this to be a very useful thing. Mainly because I’ve never been quite as conscious of the minefield that is digital communication as I have since moving to England, particularly when it comes to the office. We just speak different languages right? Lifts, elevators and all that. But it goes much deeper than simple lingo and the differences become more nuanced and complicated when you strip away human faces and voices and handsy gestures and add gender into the mix.
When I lived in New York six years ago, emails were a largely polite, straightforward, and upbeat affair:
I wanted to check-in to see what you’re working on and if any of our clients might be a good fit for your upcoming stories. Let me know and I would be happy to send along press kits. Have a nice weekend!
Friendly enough, but the boundaries are in place. Always a ‘best regards’, never an ‘x’ and an ‘o’ — unless the person was in the designated group of ‘work friends’ and on an I-saw-you-dancing-on-a-table-at-Gold-Bar basis.
And then I moved to London where I launched a fashion section for a publication owned by Scandinavians, mostly run by Viking, MBA-holding men. Emails were short and direct. Words often got replaced by acronyms and sentences usually ended in a period, or as the English like to say, a full stop. There were no pleasantries, no hopes of nice days or lovely weekends, no wasted letters:
Job done. If I were lucky — if I were REALLY killing it at work that day, I’d maybe get one of these guys:
But that would pretty much be the entire email. Not that I minded this. I always knew exactly where I stood and rarely had to spend extra time trying to dig out some secret meaning hidden between the lines.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, I was receiving flirty emails from London PRs I’d never even met:
Hi Kenya! We’re having a press day tomorrow and hope you can come?
Whoa! We haven’t even had lunch yet! Don’t we have to work our way up to an xo? We hardly know each other! Mind you, this wasn’t hugely surprising as women statistically use more emotive email language than men. Only 2.5% of men use xo on Twitter, while 11% of women do. As Caitlin Moran once told The Atlantic, ‘As someone who’s regularly ended letters to her accountant with xxx, I refuse to feel any shame for this widespread woman-trait. Statistics show we’re slowly taking over the world, and I’m happy for us to do it one xxx e‑mail at a time.” Jane Pratt, the godmother of all Internet feminists, even used the girly letters to anchor her beloved site, XOJane.
So the next thing I knew, I was managing a small team of women and one man —all of whom I adored, and all of whom showed their adoration in equally effusive messages:
This is AWESOME!
I’ll file my copy tomorrow!!
But I don’t verbally speak in all caps and exclamation points. Who does? Kanye? No matter.
Anything less than an exclamation point meant anger, despair or both:
No. I didn’t receive your email.
And so there we all were, a staff full of women (the lone dude was a die-hard period user) subject to the tyranny of the exclamation point, lest the person we were emailing thought we were offended or bothered. One poor soul on my team just started skipping out on punctuation altogether. No complete thoughts. Her words would just hang there:
Just filed my revise – it’s on the server
Have a good night
I’ve absorbed little bits from all of the email styles I’ve encountered over the years, switching it up ever so slightly depending on who I’m working with. Whereas an x and an o would have never factored into my professional life in my New York days, I admittedly and unapologetically use it with my closest teammates now. Does that make me a bad feminist? Hell no. Does that you any less of a badass boss? Doubtful. A lot of opinionators I know would beg to differ, but we’ve got bigger battles to fight, no? And more importantly: Let's just stop policing each other's behavior. Men do this to us enough. Let's not do it to each other.
But I digress. Emails.
Full disclosure: I prefer the to-the-point Skandi style. It gets exhausting trying to anticipate someone’s reaction to your emails all the time. The workdays are too busy. Time too precious. Let Watson figure it out. xoo