The return of ‘female email’

Do you remember your 2016 new year’s resolution? Was it to get more exercise, maybe? Give up the demon drink? Spend less time on Facebook and more with your real-life friends? Or was it, perhaps, to send ‘more effective email’, as recommended by the developers of an app called ‘Just Not Sorry’?

This app was intended to empower working women by encouraging them to delete ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ from their emails. If you hovered your mouse over one of the offending words you’d see a pop-up message from a communication ‘expert’, like “just” demeans what you have to say’, or ‘using “sorry” frequently undermines your gravitas’.

But even this ingenious invention seems not to have fixed women’s email problem. Last month the Telegraph ran a piece entitled ‘Sorry to bother you: how women can stop writing emails “like a girl” at work’. It begins with what the writer claims is a typically female email:

Hello! Hope you’re well and that you’re having a lovely week! So sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering if you could read the below article I’ve written? No worries at all if not – I know you must be super busy. Thank you so much for your time! Best wishes.

These 50-odd words are like a whistle-stop tour of women’s language stereotypes from the last half-century: they include a ‘just’, two ‘sos’, a ‘sorry’, a ‘lovely’, a superpolite indirect request (‘I was just wondering if you could…?’), and a veritable forest of exclamation marks. If the message had only ended with a smiley face emoji we could all have shouted ‘House!’

This much-maligned email style is generally assumed to be something women acquire in their teenage years, carry with them into the workplace, and need remedial instruction to get rid of. But last week a piece on Canada’s Global News website turned that assumption on its head. According to the reporter Meghan Collie, women in workplaces around North America are being told by their bosses, not to stop writing email ‘like a girl’, but on the contrary, to make their emails more girly.

Take Carlee Barackman, a former employee at a tech startup in Detroit who describes her email style as ‘short and to the point’:

Barackman thought she was emailing like everyone else — until her CEO pulled her aside to talk about her “harsh” language… While he didn’t explicitly ask her to soften her writing style, Barackman said it was implied, and she decided against it. “I had work to do and I didn’t want to spend extra time trying to convey my bubbly personality in an email,” she said.

Sometime later, Barackman replied to an email with “okay, thanks,” — no punctuation, no emojis — and her CEO called her out. Barackman agreed to try and “lighten it up,” but she didn’t really know what that meant. It was salt on the wound when Barackman saw an email thread between her male colleagues with writing nearly identical to the style that got her in trouble.

“I remember sitting down at my desk and having no idea who to ask about how to email like a woman. Is emailing like a woman even a thing?” she said. “I felt worried that, by adding extra fluff to an email, I would appear unprofessional, and also worried that, if I kept my replies short and direct, everyone would assume I was angry,” she said.

Carlee Barackman was only one of the many women who responded to the call Meghan Collie put out on Twitter: ‘Do you work in an office? Have you ever felt pressure to use emojis or exclamation points to soften your message?’ Affirmative answers flooded in, and they suggested that emojis and exclamation marks were only the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve been told numerous times to soften up my emails. I use smilies and ! In almost every email, and say please and thank you so much it would be weird if we were in person. I also throw in “just” a lot.

I have no idea what you’re talking about [followed by a screenshot of an email that reads “Awesome! I have been in and made the required edits! Thank you 😊]

I have been told to soften my tone, I notice that men and some women that they favor for whatever reason, are allowed to be rude, abusive and abrupt by email or message. The rest of us…get our tone policed. I have used emoji or “if that makes sense” a lot

I think it also comes down to what men can get away with in emails that women can’t — I once had a male manager write in all caps to get his point across.

I find men can get away with being short, rude and degrading but as soon as a woman does it, they get pulled in for it.

I hate exclamation points. Absolutely hate them. …But yes, I feel forced to use them to blend in & be polite! All the time! I’m so excited about absolutely nothing & here’s the punctuation to prove it!

I have consciously been removing exclamation points and emojis, apologies and just-a-quick-question from my emails for years. Why diminish yourself when you are simply communicating?

I read about how women apologize a lot in emails. Especially with saying the word “just”. I noticed how often I did it and it has been a LONG JOURNEY to remove those things from my email repertoire! No need to excuse myself for doing my job.

I confess I was taken aback by these vignettes.  Although I’ve spent a fair bit of my life observing the policing of language at work, the verbal hygiene practices described in this Twitter thread stand out for both their intrusiveness and their pettiness: managers scrutinizing internal emails in minute detail, and pulling individual employees aside (especially, it seems, if they’re female) to warn them about their tone. How is this a productive use of anyone’s working time?

The women who responded to Meghan Collie were also, for the most part, critical of the practices they described, often stating explicitly that the style they felt obliged to adopt did not reflect their own preferences. Some women clearly resented the tone-policing of their email, and a few reported actively resisting it. Many of these resisters invoked the competing, ‘Just Not Sorry’ genre of verbal hygiene to justify their rejection of ‘weak’ and ‘demeaning’ language. The irony of this–using one kind of sexist bullshit to fight another–isn’t lost on me, but I can’t really quarrel with the perception of ‘Just Not Sorry’ as the lesser of the two evils. ‘Empowerment’ may be a weasel word, but it’s surely preferable to self-abasement.

The ‘Just Not Sorry’ message has had a lot of media exposure because it resonates with the aspirational, ‘lean in’ ethos of the media outlets which commission pieces like the Telegraph’s. Precisely because it can’t so easily be spun as ’empowering’, the ‘Softly Softly’ approach hasn’t attracted the same attention. (I notice that no one has developed an app called ‘Soften Your Message’, or ‘Everything Is Awesome!’, with pop-up messages like ‘if you don’t add a smiley face people will think you’re angry’, or ‘do you love your job? Then say it with !!!’) But despite its low cultural profile. ‘Softly Softly’-style language policing is evidently a reality in many workplaces. What, we might wonder, is this about? Why are women–and, to some extent, men too–being instructed to ‘soften’, ‘lighten up’ or add ‘extra fluff’ to their emails?

On closer inspection, what Meghan Collie and her correspondents call ‘message softeners’–things like exclamation marks, emoji, hedges like ‘just’ and stock phrases like ‘sorry to bother you’ or ‘if that makes sense’–seem to serve two main purposes, which can in turn be related to two overarching norms of workplace communication.

First, there seems to be a clear norm prescribing the explicit expression of positive affect and high involvement. It’s not just that negative messages are frowned on: neutral, low-key formulations like Carlee Barackman’s ‘okay thanks’ are not acceptable either. This is what motivates the liberal use of exclamation marks and emoji (or more exactly, a subset of emoji–smileys and thumbs-up signs rather than, say, piles of poo). As conventional signifiers of excitement, enthusiasm, happiness or satisfaction, they inject a note of unambiguous positivity into even very short and banal communications. Accentuating the positive is also the function of phatic formulas like the Telegraph writer’s ‘hope you’re having a lovely week!’ and the hyperbole of responses like ‘Awesome!’ The message is something like, ‘I want you to know I’m thrilled to be at work, delighted to be communicating with you and eager to show I value your contribution’.

The second overarching norm complements the first: it could be glossed as ‘minimize the risk of conflict or offence by avoiding anything that could conceivably be read as angry, critical, overbearing or even just a bit inconsiderate’. This is the purpose served by formulas like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘sorry to bother you’ and ‘just a quick question’ (implying: ‘I know your time is precious’). It’s also the point of appending ‘if that makes sense’ to, for instance, a series of instructions or a piece of critical feedback. Here what’s being ‘softened’ is the presumptuousness of judging others or telling them what to do.

As some readers will doubtless have noticed, the two norms just outlined call for, respectively, the use of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ politeness. (These terms are taken from the work of politeness theorists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson: in their model, positive politeness addresses the desire every person has to be approved of or cared about (prototypical positive politeness formulas include ‘have a nice day’, and ‘congratulations!’), while negative politeness addresses people’s desire not to be imposed on (prototypical formulas include ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry’).)  As I’ve explained in previous posts, one of my main beefs with the ‘Just Not Sorry’ brigade is their insistence on treating politeness features as ‘fluff’ or ‘clutter’, things that detract from the message and so impede communication, when in fact they’re essential elements of any interaction between humans. Politeness per se is not a problem: taking out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ is only good advice if your ambition is to sound like a jerk. However, two things about the ‘Softly Softly’ approach do strike me as more problematic.

One problem is that the rules are so inflexible. In everyday life, the way we use linguistic markers of politeness reflects our assessment of how seriously what we’re saying might hurt, offend or impose on the other person. You wouldn’t hedge a request to pass the salt in the same way you’d hedge a request to lend you £100; you wouldn’t congratulate someone as enthusiastically on winning a pub raffle as you’d congratulate them on winning a Nobel Prize. In ‘Softly Softly’ world, however, everything gets the same ‘I’m so excited’ or ‘I’m so sorry’ treatment: as some of Meghan Collie’s correspondents observed, maintaining this high level of excitement or solicitude can be exhausting, and it can also come across as quite bizarre.

The other striking thing is the emphasis placed on expressing positive feelings, about everything and to everyone. In workplaces I do think that’s a novel development–particularly if we’re talking about internal back-office communications (accentuating the positive has a longer history in customer service). And what’s behind it, I would argue, is a combination of recent changes in workplace culture and innovations in digital communication.

Over the last 30 years, many workplaces have become less formal and overtly hierarchical, and more focused on collaborative teamwork. In the current era of precarity, companies also tend to have fewer permanent employees and more short-term contract staff. Arguably, these conditions provide fertile ground for things like the demand to accentuate the positive in dealing with co-workers (which displays your credentials as a ‘team player’) and the pressure to display enthusiasm for routine tasks (if you appear bored or disengaged you’re potentially giving your employer a reason not to renew your contract).

At the same time, more and more workplace interactions that would once have been conducted face-to-face have moved online. Email, though still available for the purposes it originally served in business contexts (sending the digital equivalent of letters and internal memos), has also become a medium for co-workers to ask each other quick questions, give brief reports and engage in rapid-fire problem-solving interactions. And what seems to have happened is that the workplace email has borrowed some of the strategies developed for text-based interaction outside work (e.g. on social media and via instant messaging apps), such as the repurposing of punctuation marks to signal affect. (As any teenager will tell you, not putting an emoji or a ! at the end of a text message risks coming across as angry; ending texts with a traditional full stop is rude because it signifies disapproval–though the students who made me aware of this say they try not to judge clueless old people like their mothers too harshly for this offence.)

Imported into the workplace, however, these strategies can create problems that don’t arise, or not so markedly, in other contexts. Some people find email messages larded with emoji and exclamation marks contextually inappropriate–too informal for professional settings, or too personal for interaction with non-intimates. Others find this mode of expression insincere—and not without reason, since at work you’re very likely to be communicating feelings or attitudes you don’t actually have, to people who also know you’re faking, because they’re doing the same thing themselves. (Has anyone ever read a message like ‘I’m so excited for this afternoon’s meeting!!!’ and taken it as a faithful reflection of the writer’s true feelings?)

In principle, the new workplace norms apply to everyone, men as well as women: one man told Meghan Collie that ‘In a previous role, I was told to be “20% friendlier” in my emails and to soften them with smileys’. In practice, however, many contributors to the thread believed that women’s language was more heavily policed than men’s. Whereas men’s failure or refusal to comply with the rules was frequently tolerated (even, reportedly, when this involved such gross breaches as ranting at length in all caps), women could rarely get away with even slight deviations from the prescribed style.

This double standard isn’t hard to explain. The new workplace verbal hygiene is about fostering co-operation and maintaining harmonious relationships by paying solicitous attention to people’s feelings–a responsibility that has been assigned to women since time immemorial. Women are thought to be ‘naturally’ caring, more emotionally expressive than men and more sensitive to others’ needs. We expect them to do more emotional caretaking, we hold them to higher standards, and we punish them more severely when they fall short.

But as depressing as all this is, the Twitter comments quoted earlier give me hope. They show women aren’t just sucking it up: they are critical of the linguistic demands made in their workplaces, and in some cases they are refusing to ‘soften their message’. This rejection of sexist bullshit has my full and unequivocal support. Rise up, sisters: you have nothing to lose but your !!! 😊😊–if that makes sense.

Are women over-emojinal?

To mark World Emoji Day on July 17, the Empire State Building was lit up in emoji yellow, and Leah Fessler wrote a piece for Quartz* about why feminists should stop using emoji. She’d realised, she explained, that larding your messages with smiley faces, love hearts and thumbs-up signs (as well as exclamation points, which she treats as honorary emoji) is yet another form of emotional labour the world demands from women.

From childhood, women are conditioned to smile and nod to ensure that others feel comfortable and confident. This dynamic translates in digital communication through emoji and exclamation points.

Fessler was determined to break her emoji habit, but initially she found it hard; she felt ‘rude and awkward’ replying to messages with a simple ‘OK’ or ‘sure’ rather than a cheery thumbs-up or an enthusiastic ‘absolutely!’ But a few days in, she found she was starting to reap the benefits. Ditching the emoji, she reports, ‘wasn’t just a relief—it was empowering’.

Ah, the E-word–so often the canary in the coalmine of language-policing bullshit. Despite its use of sociological terms like ‘conditioning’ and ’emotional labour’, this is still basically an example of the formula I’ve analysed in previous posts about ‘just’, ‘sorry’, uptalk et al. First, you identify something women do, or are believed to do, more than men; next, you explain why that’s a problem for women; finally, you exhort women to empower themselves by changing their behaviour. Embellish the basic argument with some personal anecdotes, finish with an Uplifting Thought (‘even the smallest changes can alter the way others view you, and more importantly, the way you view yourself’)–et voilà, job done.

But enough of the snark: let’s try to unpick the argument.

Since emoji came into widespread use, their merits or otherwise have been extensively discussed, and opinion has been divided. On one hand they’ve been lauded in pieces (misguidedly) proclaiming them a new universal tongue, ‘the world’s fastest growing language’; on the other they’ve been belittled in comments like this one from the New York Times:

Given their resemblance to the stickers that adorn the notebooks of schoolgirls, not to mention their widespread adoption as the lingua franca of tweens and teens everywhere, some people wonder whether grown men should be using [emoji] at all.

This has something in common with the popular response to other linguistic innovations, like uptalk and vocal fry, which are associated with young women. When a linguistic form is stereotyped as a ‘girl thing’, you can bet that people will disparage it–and also that they will project a meaning onto it which reflects their ideas, or prejudices, about girls. Uptalk, for instance, has persistently been interpreted as a sign that the speaker doesn’t know what she really thinks, and/or is desperate for others’ approval–a story we’d find less intuitively plausible if it were told about something middle-aged men did. (If you want to know why linguists who’ve studied uptalk don’t buy this interpretation, see here).

By likening them to the decorative stickers young girls put on their school notebooks, the writer quoted above implies that women’s enthusiasm for emoji is of a piece with their more general fondness for frivolous embellishments. In scholarly discussions you’re more likely to encounter a different stereotype: women use emoji more than men because they’re more ’emotionally expressive’. Apart from being suspiciously circular (is there any evidence that women are more emotionally expressive apart from the kinds of emotional expression which their emotional expressiveness is meant to explain?), this argument presupposes that expressing emotion must be the function of emoji. Which might seem to be self-evident (isn’t the clue in the name?), but is actually an oversimplification.

That emoji are neither purely decorative nor all about the expression of emotion becomes clearer if you know something about their history. The precursors of emoji, emoticons (the earliest of these were smiley and winky faces made by combining ASCII characters, and they were invented by a grown man, or so he claims) were taken up by participants in early online forums to address a problem in what was then a new communication medium. Written language offers fewer resources than speech for signalling how you intend your message to be taken. In speech you’ve got the pitch, tone, loudness and quality of your voice (plus in face-to-face contexts facial expressions and body language), but in text-based interaction you’ve got none of these. This was leading to conflict when messages that were meant to be ironic or humorous prompted angry reactions from others who read them ‘straight’. Emoticons were ‘meta’ devices which enabled writers to signal their intentions more explicitly.

Today’s emoji are more diverse than emoticons in both their forms and their functions. They do provide resources for emotional expression, but that isn’t the only thing they’re used for. They’ve retained their usefulness as indicators of ironic or humorous intent, and they can also serve as tools for managing the mechanics of text-based interaction. On Twitter, for instance, the heart is often used simply as an acknowledgment token, to let someone know you’ve seen a tweet rather than to express your feelings about its content. In that case its affective meaning (‘heart = love’) is irrelevant, and competent users understand that. The same applies to the office conventions Leah Fessler complains about, like acknowledging meeting reminders with a thumbs-up emoji. Though the thumbs-up gesture conventionally symbolises enthusiasm, in this context it’s no more likely to mean ‘I’m really excited about this meeting’, than the Twitter heart is to mean ‘I’m in love with this tweet’. Using it is less a form of emotional labour than a labour-saving device (it’s quicker and easier than composing a verbal acknowledgment).

But if emoji aren’t just about emoting, or decoration, how do we explain women using them more than men? Actually, let’s go back a step: do women use them more than men?

Some of the evidence presented to support this claim should be approached with caution, because it comes from studies which asked people to report on their emoji use rather than analysing their actual output. Self-reports vary in accuracy, and they’re liable to be influenced by the subjects’ beliefs about who uses what kind of language (if a form is associated with women, that in itself may lead men to under-report their use of it). However, the generalisation that women use emoji more than men does have some credible research evidence to back it up. One frequently-cited study was done in Texas in 2012: researchers analysed 124,000 real text messages produced by subjects who granted access to their phones without knowing what the research was about. Women in this sample were twice as likely as men to include emoticons in a text–though their overall frequency was low for both sexes (only 4% of the texts sampled contained any).

But research also shows that gender is not the only variable affecting how, and how much, emoji are used. You can’t easily generalise across genres, platforms and devices–text messages aren’t the same as emails, and what goes for Tinder doesn’t apply to Twitter. Nor can you sensibly talk about ‘women’ or ‘men’ as homogeneous categories, without reference to intersecting variables like age and social background. It can also make a difference who the messages are addressed to. One early study of emoticon use in newsgroups (which were important online forums before Web 2.0 and smartphones) found that women in all-female or female dominated groups used more emoticons than men in all-male or male dominated ones. In mixed newsgroups, however, there was no significant difference: women used emoticons at much the same rates as they did in all-female groups, but men used them much more frequently when they were participating in a mixed group. This is not an unusual observation. Masculinity and femininity are often performed differently in single-sex and mixed sex interaction, where people are responding to different kinds of peer pressure, and where they may also be having different kinds of conversations.

In sum: ‘women use emoji more than men’ is probably true as far as it goes; there’s also plenty of evidence showing that certain emoji are used more by women and others are used more by men. However, these descriptive generalisations (like all statements about ‘men’ and ‘women’) mask significant variation within each group. And no descriptive generalisation (if you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious) constitutes an explanation of the facts it describes.

As I’ve already said, there’s a tendency for researchers to go straight for the ‘women are more emotionally expressive’ explanation. But as I’ve also already said, this is not entirely satisfactory. And there are other possibilities which fit at least as well with things we know about gender and communication in other contexts. For instance:

The difference might be a matter of style (a word which shouldn’t, in the context of language, be taken to denote something trivial). Online and offline, language is one of the symbolic resources which people draw on to create a distinctive persona, and to mark themselves as members or non-members of particular social groups or subcultures. Many small differences in pronunciation do this job: different variants of the same sound may be used to differing degrees or in different ways by speakers of different ages, classes, ethnicities and genders. The same principle might explain why men and women use an overlapping but non-identical range of emoji, and why women use them more frequently overall. You could compare it to the way we style our clothes or our hair: with emoji as with clothes, it seems that mainstream masculinity is less flamboyant than the feminine equivalent. (Interestingly, a study that investigated the perceived gender of the most popular emoji found that the ones ranked most ‘feminine’ included ‘face throwing a kiss’ and ‘face with tears of joy’, while the most ‘masculine’ were the more prosaic ‘thumbs-up’ and ‘OK’ symbols).

The difference might also be a by-product of the fact that men and women, if we insist on considering them as aggregates, tend to be members of different social networks in which they have conversations about different things. This is a point demonstrated in many tedious Big Data studies of vocabulary: I wish I had £10 for every article I’ve read which announces that ‘men and women use different words’, when all the research really shows is that people generally use words which pertain to the subject under discussion. Amazingly enough, women posting family news on Facebook tend to use more words relating to kinship and family occasions (like ‘grandma’ and ‘wedding’) than men debating current affairs or the performance of Arsenal Football Club. Most emoji are less subject-specific in their application than most words, but it’s still reasonable to think that which and how many of them you use might have something to do with who you’re talking to and what about.

It’s also possible that women’s more frequent use of emoji exemplifies the common pattern where innovations which are destined to spread through the whole population become visible first among young women. Because of that, we start out assuming they’re a ‘girl thing’ and looking for explanations which connect them to femininity; but as they spread it becomes apparent that they weren’t so much a girl thing as a new thing that girls got onto first. This is what has happened with uptalk: once a Valley Girl signature, it’s now heard among young and even middle-aged speakers, of both sexes, in many parts of the English-speaking world. Maybe the emoji gap between men and women will also narrow over time, making the question of why women use more emoji redundant.

This is not a multiple choice test where there’s only one right answer: the social life of language is too complex for one-size-fits-all explanations. And that’s an especially important point to bear in mind when you’re trying to explain gendered behaviour, because the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’ are so internally diverse–different subsets of men and women may be using or not using emoji for different reasons. I know I keep on saying this, but it really can’t be over-emphasised: no single thing can explain the behaviour of every member of a group which comprises half of humankind.

Do I think Leah Fessler is describing a real phenomenon? Yes. I think the pressure to be relentlessly upbeat and positive is a feature of many workplace cultures, and I also think there are good reasons to be critical of it (if you’re interested, this is the subject of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die). But do I think it follows that women should stop using emoji? No. Emoji are not the problem here. Like other attempts to ’empower’ women by changing their behaviour rather than the conditions it’s a response to, the ‘feminist case against emoji’ is fundamentally a pile of poo.

*Thanks to Mercedes Durham for drawing my attention to the Quartz piece.