EHS OutLoud Blog

What Do Your Emails Say About Your Place On the Company Totem Pole?

1_computer.jpgShow me a few key phrases from your work emails, and I'll be able to tell you whether you were communicating with a superior or a subordinate. At least, that's what an expert from Georgia Tech College of Computing says.

Apparently, when we type words like "weekend," "the ability to," "I took," "voicemail," "okay" and "driving" in work emails, we're more likely to be writing to a superior. But writing "have you been," "you gave," "we are in" or "need in," chances are we're writing to someone lower on the totem pole, relatively speaking.

“Across a wide variety of messages and relationships, these phrases consistently stand out as signaling a power relationship between two people,” said Eric Gilbert, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing. He added the probability of such results occurring by chance is less than 1 in 1,000.

Gilbert and his team studied 500,000 emails of 150 former Enron employees to come to his conclusions. (Yes, that Enron – but after the Enron scandal came to light, the researchers took steps to minimize the chance their findings captured phenomena unique to Enron's situation.)

But what does this mean for those of us sending work emails? Apparently, such research could lead to one day building smarter email clients that can differentiate between emails sent from superiors or subordinates, which in turn can be used to enhance a worker's email preferences. So maybe you want to receive the email sent from your boss (or your boss's assistant) on the weekend or after hours, but you don't mind waiting till Monday morning to see the messages from those who work under you.

In a world where email already seems to be running the show, I'm not sure how I'd feel about such a specific email hierarchy. (Messages from our coworkers or subordinates are important, too!) But if it more clearly outlines the best and most important information coming into our inboxes, then I suppose I'm all for it. After all, I know I'm not alone in weeding through dozens and dozens of emails every day just to get to the ones that matter the most.

To download a PDF containing the full, 100-word lists that Gilbert and researchers say predict hierarchical direction, click here.

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