A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email


Kaitlin Duck Sherwood

Just as you have no guarantees about your correspondents' context, you can't determine much about their status. You can't look at their clothes, note their dialect and rate of speech, listen to the timbre of their voice, or count the wrinkles around their eyes. Your guesses about your correspondents' age, race, gender, marital status, affluence, intelligence, and education will be much less accurate than they usually would be in a face-to-face or even telephone conversation.

Your correspondents can't tell much about you either. They will probably do the same thing you will probably catch yourself doing - make assumptions on the flimsiest of pretexts.

I am emphatically not saying that it is good for people to make assumptions. But because there are so few status cues to draw upon, they will. You need to be aware of that, so that you can work on guiding their assumptions if you need to.

Cues They Will Use


The biggest status cue is your competence with the language. If you have lots of misspellings, your subjects do not agree with your verbs, or you use the wrong word, people may assume that you are uneducated. From that, they may infer that you are not very clever. It doesn't matter that the correlation between language ability and intelligence is weak (especially among non-native speakers); lots of people will make that inference anyway.

Furthermore, some people are literally insulted by getting email with errors, especially typographical errors. They feel that it is disrespectful to send email with blatant errors. (Note that you can use this to your advantage. If you want to flaunt your superior status, you can insert some typos deliberately.)

I realize that in a perfect world, we would all have the luxury of faultless writing. However, we do not live in a perfect world. Good grammar is very hard for some people, just as painting portraits, solving partial differential equations, shoeing horses, and sinking putts can be very hard for others. This has always been true, but before the advent of electronic technology, people who were not very skilled at writing could do most of their communication verbally. This coping strategy is less possible now.

Spending more time crafting prose can improve the quality of the writing, but it is not possible to spend an hour on each email message if you need to send ten of them per day. Fortunately, grammar- and spell-checkers can help enormously. If high status is important to your message, you should definitely use them. However, there are certain classes of errors that grammar- and spell-checkers will not find. If you really want to boost your language-related status, you may have to commit yourself to some significant studying.

Personally, I would like my correspondents to spend their time on providing appropriate context instead of on perfecting their grammar. I would much rather get email that says:

	There is 50 people with machien guns on Main Street
	abt 1 mi aways wallking north and they not friendly so
	getcher butts outta here protno!!!!!
than one about the same situation that says:
	You would be advised to leave the building promptly.
I can guess at proper grammar; I can't guess at proper context.

Return Address

Your correspondents will extract status cues from your domain. (If you aren't familiar with domain names, you might want to read the appendix on domain names and come back.)

Any stereotype that is held about the organization that gives you your email connection will rub off on you. For example, if your email comes from:

Your correspondents will also look at your real name (if visible) and log-in ID. Unless your name has cues to the contrary, most people will assume that you match the dominant species of your organization and/or country. People will frequently assume that bpj@thromble.com is male but that barbara@thromble.com will be female - even though barbara could easily be a man named Peter Barbara. Unless the name is something like Smith, people are likely to assume that the author of any email coming from Taiwan is Asian. Unless the screen name is something like Jamaal, people will usually assume that authors of email coming from the U.S. are of European descent.

Your log-in ID gives even more subtle cues. Having a desirable email name - short and without numbers - can indicate that you were one of the first in your domain to get an email account. Thus, steve@thromble.com has probably been using computers longer than steve9672@thromble.com.

People may also make assumptions about your maturity and formality level. Your correspondent will probably take Barbara.J.Periwinkle@thromble.com more seriously than barbiedoll@thromble.com.

You can steer people's impressions very easily just by telling them who you are. You can do this by adding a signature with status cues:

	Barbara J. Periwinkle
	Vice-President of Legal Affairs
	Itty Bitty Machines, Inc. 
	Peter Periwinkle
	Kennedy Middle School
	(Age 14)
	Check out the Latvian Homepage at http://www.latvia.org!
Here, young Mr. Periwinkle gives the cue that he might be of Latvian origin.

It can also be effective to lead off a message with status information:

	Hi, my name is Peter and I'm a student at Kennedy Middle School
	in White Plains.  I'm doing a project at school on imaginary
	industrial equipment.  Could you please send me the latest 
	thromblemeister catalog?
	Hi - I'm the Vice-President of Legal Affairs with Itty Bitty Machines.
	Could you please send me the latest thromblemeister catalog?  I'm
	considering purchasing stock in your company.
Note that here the author not only gives a title and professional affiliation, but also shows off language facility by using big words: "considering purchasing" instead of "thinking of buying". Overuse of big words can sound pretentious, but in short messages can enhance status. Be careful, though, that you use the words properly, and that they aren't so obscure that your correspondent can't understand them.

Email Usage

The final thing that people will look at is your use of email. If you do not give proper context, type only in capital letters, or use extremely long lines, people may assume that you are highly inexperienced with the medium. They may also assume that you are too stupid or stubborn to learn, since those are errors that are usually pointed out very rapidly (and not always gently) by experienced users.

In addition to the composition of the email message, people will look at how appropriate the message was. Was it sent to the right person? Was it a reasonable question?

Do You Need To Worry About This?

How do you decide how much time you should spend on managing your status cues? That depends upon several things:


Again, I do not endorse stereotyping, but generalizing is part of human nature. You need to be aware of what signals you may be giving your correspondents and how to counteract them if you feel they may be incorrect.

Go on to Formality

Go back to the beginning
Go back to Gestures

Created 22 Oct 1998
Fixed typo 24 Feb 2000
Beautified page 23 May 2001

Please see the copyright notice.