‘Female Email’: Professional Communication as a Woman

Last fall, I was assigned a random roommate from my apartment complex, and she texted me before meeting me to get to know who I was. After meeting me in person, she confessed that she expected a real mean girl, a total nightmare to live with. I was appalled because (not to brag) I’m a dream to live with, and I generally have a positive and sunny disposition. My roommate said that because of how I text I come off as angry and unfriendly. Apparently, my habit of putting periods at the ends of all my text messages (an unfortunate habit learned as an English major) and using mostly complete sentences causes me to sound unapproachable.

This troubled me because, as a writer, I often have to email and text people I don’t know and have no prior relationship with, and I don’t want to come across as rude (maybe that’s why they rarely contact me back). That, of course, made me super self-conscious about my texts, and I now systematically remove all the periods.

Why is it that something as simple as punctuation can completely change the tone of a phrase? Does it matter if I sound angry over text, especially if the recipient knows I’m cordial? After realizing this about my texts, I’m now looking at my emails and other professional communication. Should I be emailing differently?

In the 1980s, a study was published by two soliloquists, Dr. William O’Barr and Dr. Bowman Atkins, analyzing the language used by male and female witnesses in courtrooms in North Carolina. They expected the women to all express similar traits: hedges (“Kind of, sort of”), tag questions (“Ya know? Isn’t he?”), super polite language (“I’d really appreciate”) empty adjectives (“cute, sweet, adorable”), etc. Do you say similar things in your speech? I know I often do. They’re natural and quite common; we are taught to use these features from our peers.

In soliloquists, these are generally considered indicators of female speech and originally thought to enforce women’s subordinate position in society. O’Barr and Atkins found that it wasn’t only women that used these linguistic features. Both men and women that were less educated, had less powerful jobs and had a lower social status in society shared these traits. And on the flip side, courtroom witnesses that had more education (like expert witnesses), higher social status and held powerful positions in their careers didn’t. They used more direct language; no filler terms, no hedges, and they were confident and secure in their answers.

Rather than identifying these language traits as belonging solely to women, O’Barr and Atkins deemed them as powerless language. Using characteristics such as these makes the speaker sound and appear to have less power, and therefore for what they’re saying to be taken less seriously. Although both men and women used language such as this, women use it far more because women are more likely to be in a powerless position, or at least feel powerless.

Even though I am writing this article, and therefore in some position of power, I’m sure you could find lots of examples of powerless speech in my writing.

It’s no surprise that women are often treated as less than in society, especially in the workplace. The problem is that when women try to make their language more powerful to be taken seriously, they are ridiculed for sounding too harsh or rude, but when women use traditional feminine features in their professional communication they aren’t taken seriously. It’s a double-bind that is unfortunately systemic and a direct result of centuries of sexism.

This semester I took a class investigating the relationship between gender and language in soliloquists, and it really opened my eyes to how men and women speak differently, and how poorly society treats women with their language. 

After realizing how women are treated differently linguistically, especially in a professional environment, I asked around to see if college women were really treated poorly.

A fellow English major classmate of mine, Carolina, shared with me the other day that she has had male professors tell her that her academic writing – papers, discussion posts, reading responses, etc. – was “too aggressive” and to change it, soften it up. Like most empowered and strong college women, Carolina is opinionated and articulate and – apparently to some of her male professors – aggressive. She says that none of her female professors have ever asked her to soften her writing style or claim it was too aggressive.

Have you ever felt the pressure to soften your language, to add exclamation points, or to an excessive amount of “thank yous” into your emails so you don’t seem too abrupt? I know I have. Even to professors or coworkers that I know well, I feel obligated to be overly enthusiastic and apologetic and courteous to their time. But why add all the extra words when straightforward communication is more efficient and concise?

In the college job search culture, in which students feel an immense pressure to get a job or internship and be successful once they graduate, students, especially women, sometimes accept jobs in which they are underpaid or not paid at all. And in these high-pressure-to-perform jobs, showing you’re a team player and pleasing your boss (who is most likely to be a man) is key. Which most of the time means sending emails with lots of exclamation points.

Dr. Deborah Cameron, a feminist, a writer, and a sociolinguist that researches the relationship between gender and language, says in her blog (which is very funny, you should check it out), that this double standard between men’s and women’s professional communication, “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.”

From personal experience, this rings incredibly true. How many times have you voiced your emotions and feelings to a girl because a guy would just not understand? Or how often has a man called you “too emotional” for just feeling your feelings? This trend transcends our language. When we don’t inject false excitement among other feelings into our professional emails, they come off as harsh, and when do use them, emails come off as unprofessional.

Although I feel pressured to ‘soften my emails’, I’m rejecting that idea. I have way too much to do in my day to worry about if the person on the receiving end of my email will be offended if I don’t add an exclamation point at the end of “thank you” or if I don’t start my message with some trite “Hope your day is going well.” I actually don’t care if your day is going well, I’m more concerned that you are doing what I asked you to at work. And Dr. Cameron agrees with me, “This rejection of sexist bullshit has my full and unequivocal support.” Ditto, Dr. Cameron.