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How’s your parrot? Why ‘shemail’ could harm your career. By Sarah Fletcher

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If you want to be taken seriously at work, cut the fluff. Women risk being ignored as serious business minds because their email style is flowery and ambles around the point before reaching the real reason for contact, new research claims. According to Drs Monica Seeley and Niki Panteli in Gender and Communication at Work, men write emails that waste no time in saying exactly what they want, whereas women get so caught up with social niceties and crafting personal emails that they risk others thinking they aren't up to the job.

"Women commonly use flowery speech and create personal emails; men tend to be precise and to the point," says Marilyn Davidson, professor of work psychology at Manchester Business School. "Mirroring their usual speech and communication patterns, women's emails may ask how you are and how your holiday or weekend was, before dealing with the real point of the message.

"Long chatty emails can be seen as time-wasting. But worse, you risk not being taken seriously. If you are writing about technical reports or important business issues, you will lose credibility if the message is not clear and succinct," adds Davidson, who produced the book with Professor Mary Barrett, of Woll-ongong University in New South Wales. But will our email style really affect our career prospects? Is the stereotypical 'male' approach – quick, sharp and verging on aggressive – really the key to creating a smart impression in the workplace?

HR manager Berengere Toscano agrees that a more personal style can damage your business credentials: "Unfortunately in the workplace it is often seen as a weakness to be personable," she says. "Sharp emails certainly help you to be taken seriously."

 

"Short, abrupt emails may be good at getting quick results, but are not so good at building relationships for longer term success"

Lynn Hebb, HR manager

A power game or serious commitment?

Focusing on email style may actually be a way of gaining the upper hand over other employees, as staff feel undermined if senior managers disapprove of the way in which they write. Lauren Chesney, an HR professional working for a top-five Canadian bank, had such an experience: "A few years ago, when I was an HR generalist, a director in my client group emailed me to recommend that I review my email style. He suggested that I frame my comments as questions rather than statements. So rather than writing: "All performance evaluation documentation should reach my by Jan 13, 2006 at the latest" he suggested I say something like "Would it be possible to get all performance evaluation documentation to me by Jan 13, 2006?" He said that I was too direct and it made him uncomfortable.

"I told him that I had no intention of changing my email style; if I needed to make a statement I would, and if I needed to ask a question I would," she says. "Looking back, it probably wasn't a response that strengthened the relationship and as an HR professional these relationships are key to success. But at the time it felt like a power trip on his part – and it probably was."

Think carefully, though, as your email style may provide clues to your commitment to the business. Harrods HR manager Nikki Brun notes that she would adopt a more formal, concise style when emailing directors than the language she'd use when addressing friends; and an excessively 'flowery' approach can cast a bad impression:

"I would have a low opinion of anyone who gave me a five day weather forecast, went into detail about their children, told me what they had for lunch, used lots of smiley faces and then got round to the subject in hand. A complete lack of pleasantries and humour, though, would result in miserable communications."

 

""I would have a low opinion of anyone who gave me a five day weather forecast, went into detail about their children, told me what they had for lunch, used lots of smiley faces and then got round to the subject in hand. A complete lack of pleasantries and humour, though, would result in miserable communications."

Nikki Brun, HR manager, Harrods

Communication is key

Being a strong communicator is essential for career success, argues HR manager Lynn Hebb, and emails can provide a clue to an employee's ability. "Short, abrupt emails may be good at getting quick results, but are not so good at building relationships for longer term success," she says. "If there is only one thing that I have learned in my whole working life, it's that people who are good at communicating do better!

"In our company, we certainly notice that time and again it makes a difference in sales, project management and even our brilliant technologists here don't do as well as the technologists who are less brilliant but who have superior communication skills. I think it is the single most important work… An email should ideally engage the recipient (being personal if necessary) and clearly articulate a point. I think either over-flowery or too brief are two ends of a spectrum and neither will provide the best results," she adds.

"Is style of email really that important?" asks consultant Mike Morrison. "I suspect not. If a person cannot or does not give a straight answer to a question then that individual may be seen as 'avoiding the point'. If this behaviour is consistent (both face to face and email) then at times of promotion the 'whole package' is reviewed and as a result there is a possibility that the person may be seen as non-committal and likely to be risk adverse," he suggests.

This point is key to the debate: If you're hiding your lack of work knowledge behind a long-winded ramble about the weather, your difficult next door neighbour and your sick parrot, this could have serious consequences for your career. However, as director of Mindpool Consulting Sam Newell points out, getting the tone of an email right and being able to express yourself eloquently is an important skill.

Ultimately, how could you possibly advocate a 'one style fits all' idea? Being able to gauge the situation and the necessary email response is crucial – being given a set template just won't work. "I have yet to come across a colleague male or female who wittered for hours pointlessly in a work email, and even personal emails seem a little terse nowadays. So I think that this "research" is yet more pointless nonsense, trying to justify a social "scientist's" job," argues Nik Kellingley. "And aren't we about celebrating and embracing diversity in the workplace anyway – rather than trying to make a "one size fits all sheep" culture?"

Perhaps we all need training in a 'pure' business-smart style: "Hello. Do the report. Now. Bye." Or is 'bye' too flowery?

By Sarah Fletcher

 

2 Responses

  1. Recommended – The Hamster Revolution
    Take a look at the Hamster Revolution. This book will help to write emails which get you want you need without wasting time.

    In The Hamster Revolution you will meet Harold, an HR director so overwhelmed by email. Harold meets a coach—a leading expert on email efficiency and etiquette with a simple system that helps Harold:
    Get fewer emails. The best way to get less is to send less. Target your emails—not spray them—and be more efficient and effective.

    Write better emails. Weak subject lines and—wall of words—messages do not work since people don’t read emails—they scan them.

    Find information faster. File smart: create a limited number of mutually exclusive folders that are based on content—not sender, software, or some other criteria.

    Coach others. Offer your frequent senders a few really good tips—or suffer through their really bad emails. A little coaching can go a long way!

    Authors Mike Song, Vicki Halsey, and Tim Burress are leading experts on email efficiency and etiquette.

  2. ‘subtle niceties’
    I take the point about e-mails being ‘flowery’, but i am surprised that this is mainly being attributed to women. Over indulgence in workplace relationships normally determine tone and context of e-mails. I for one steer clear of work place relationships, hence keeping my e-mails clear, concise and to the point. I always ensure there is a brief salutation at the start and an effective sign – off at the end. Oh and I can’t believe forgot to mention what happended this weekend……

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