The Problem With Telling Women to Email Like Men
Maybe men should use more exclamation points!
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You’ve probably heard by now that you’re doing email wrong. You’re too friendly in your emails. You should write more confidently. You need to be more professional. Women, so the stereotype goes, email differently to men. We’re more personable and less persuasive. We apologize more, qualifying statements with “I think” and “I feel,” and use so-called "permission words" like "just." And then there are the exclamation points. Several studies have found that, on average, women use more exclamation points in their digital communications than men, making the humble exclamation point somewhat emblematic of gendered differences in email styles. I can’t remember the last time I sent an email without one.
This, we are told, is bad. It makes us look soft, or amateurish. It stops people taking us seriously. One common piece of advice I've received: stop emailing “like a woman.” Cut the friendly tone, banish the exclamation points, and don’t you dare think about slipping in an emoji. Email like a man.
One rationale behind this advice is pragmatic. If a stereotypically “male” style of emailing—confident, emotionally detached, light on exclamation points—is seen as more professionally competent, then women who want to get ahead may do well to mimic this. (Of course, it’s not just gender that’s at issue; behaviors associated with race, ethnicity, class, and age can also be negatively judged. An obvious example would be the use of slang vocabulary more prevalent among particular demographics or communities.)
The problem with this, however, is the same as with any other kind of Lean In model of feminism. It places the onus to change on the individual, when the problem is societal. It asks those who are already disadvantaged by social structures—in this case, male-dominated corporate culture—to put in extra work only to further uphold those very same structures. Women shouldn’t have to write “like men” to be taken seriously. People should just take women seriously. After all, there’s no reason that emailing like a stereotypically heterosexual man is any more workplace-appropriate. The only reason we think so is because we associate professionalism with men.
In fact, exclamation points and other email behaviors associated with “emailing like a woman” can be incredibly useful. Email, like most of our digital communications, suffers from the fact that it doesn’t benefit from the kind of non-verbal cues we rely on to get our point across when we’re speaking in person, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Exclamation points, emoji, or slightly more florid vocabulary, can all help to communicate our meaning and avoid awkward misunderstandings. Shouldn’t that be the “professional” thing to do?
Before you get carried away with the exclamation points, however, it may be worth considering why these gendered email differences exist in the first place. Are women just inherently more likely to use more qualifiers and softeners? Were we born to exclaim? More likely the reason we put more qualifiers and softeners and exclamation points into our emails is not some natural proclivity, but a result of living and working in a society that expects women to behave in a certain way. Read: to be meek, submissive, and deferential.
This is the motivation that led tech worker Tami Reiss to invent a Gmail plugin called “Just Not Sorry” in 2015. The plug-in highlights qualifying or softening words and phrases, like “just," “I think,” and “so sorry,” in a similar way to a spell-checker. Reiss built the tool because she was fed up with inadvertently using language they felt undermined their ideas. She didn’t build the plugin to sound more “manly” in her emails, but to sound more like herself—or at least how she wanted to sound.
A double standard applies to female email etiquette: we're damned if we do use exclamation points, and damned if we don't. In a 2017 article for the New Statesman, journalist Amelia Tait relays several stories of women who received negative feedback because their email tone was perceived as too cold or aggressive. They were judged negatively for using too few exclamation points. This echoes a broader double standard for women in the workplace: it’s not enough to be professional; we have to be friendly too. As a result, we’re left in an impossible limbo, trying to appear competent but also approachable, and attempting to judge just the right number of exclamation points that will hit that sweet spot between too pushy, or pushover.
What, then, is a truly liberated approach? If emailing “like a woman” is to perpetuate stereotypes about how women should act, but emailing “like a man” is to reinforce the idea that professionalism should aspire to male corporate culture—and if either approach can be held against you anyway—then what’s a female emailer to do?
The ideal solution, of course, would be to email as we please, exclamation points be damned. Want to pepper your email with them? Fine. Prefer a more direct style? Also fine. We should be able email however we want, within general parameters of professional propriety (I draw the line at kisses, unless you are genuinely friends with the person outside of a work context.) I do agree with Reiss that too many qualifiers can risk undermining your message, if you’re using them automatically and not intentionally. I use her plugin, but I don’t always change the words it suggests. Instead, it helps me decide whether I’m saying what I actually want to say. It’s the difference between writing a certain way because you want to, or because you feel you have to.
Ultimately, real empowerment would be not having to think about how we come across at all. Needless to say, there are conspicuously few think pieces out there about how men should email.
Digital Etiquette by Victoria Turk is published by Ebury Press.