What Your Email Style Reveals About Your Personality

You think about how you're perceived in every other social setting--why not email? Get your point across while staying true to yourself before hitting send.

Most of your work communications are probably over email. You likely email your colleagues and clients more frequently than you speak to them on the phone or meet with them in person.

Unlike face-to-face communication, it can be more difficult to effectively convey important aspects of your personality, attitudes, and style in email.

Is there a connection between our email persona and our real-life persona? How competently can the average person infer our personality from our emails? The answer comes in four points:

Your words define you

People use language in different ways, and those differences are a function of their personality. Our choices are spontaneous and unconscious but they do reflect who we are. Text mining studies have found associations between key words and major aspects of personality. The more frequently people use those words, the more likely it is that they display certain personality traits.

For example, extraverts talk about fun-related stuff: bars, Miami, music, party, and drinks. People with lower EQ are more likely to use emotional and negative words: stress, depressed, angry, and unfortunate. Narcissists talk about themselves--the number of self-referential words (e.g., “I,” “me,” “mine,” “myself,” etc.) is indicative of someone’s self-love and entitlement. Artistic and intellectual individuals use highbrow words, such as narrative, rhetoric, and leitmotiv.

It’s not just what you say but also how you say it

There is also huge variability in people’s communicational style, even when the words may not differ that much. For instance, absence of typos is a sign of conscientiousness, perfectionism, and obsessionality. Poor grammar reflects lower levels of IQ and academic intelligence. Emoticons are a sign of friendliness (if the email is informal) or immaturity (in work-related emails).

Long emails reflect energy and thoroughness, but also some degree of neediness and disorganization. Chaotic emails are a sign of creativity or psychopathic tendencies. Instant responses reflect impulsivity and low self-control. Late responses are a sign of disinterest, and no responses signal passive-aggressive disdain.

It's easy for readers to misinterpret cues

Even when emails do reflect our personality, human observers may fail to interpret the cues. This tends to occur for two main reasons: they are either not paying sufficient attention (focusing instead on what they want to say), or over-interpreting things.

Importantly, correct interpretations require paying attention to contextual factors, such as awareness of the sender’s main motivation, and distilling the signal from the noise. It is also important to determine whether cues are truly related to senders’ personality or transient mood and behaviors.

The bottom line is that even the most intuitive observer of email behaviors may fail to perform as well as a computer-generated algorithm, especially if they have never had physical interactions with the sender or lack any background information on them. Of course, this does not stop people from making inferences. Human beings are prewired to make instant and unconscious evaluations of people, and we tend to disregard information that is not congruent with our initial prejudices--this is why stereotypes are so pervasive, and that goes for the email world, too.

Trust needs chemistry, which happens in person

Online trust is the backbone of a huge economy: we wouldn’t have eBay, Uber, Tinder, or Airbnb unless we were open to the idea of trusting strangers simply based on their digital footprint or crowdsourced reputation. Yet going beyond superficial relations with others still requires face-to-face interactions--and it probably always will. This is why our impressions of others are rarely the same in the digital as in the physical world: even phone conversations omit key information about individuals’ personalities.

Ultimately, chemistry cannot be translated into data. And unlike computers, humans are more trusting when they can make decisions on the basis of their intuition, rather than pure data. Perhaps this is the main explanation for the fact that face-to-face meetings are far from extinction. Video technology is popular, but only because it has replaced phone conversations, rather than physical meetings.

--Dr. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, consumer analytics, and talent management. He is a Professor of Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), Vice President of Research and Innovation at Hogan Assessments, and has previously taught at New York University and the London School of Economics.

[Image via Death to Stock]

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20 Comments

  • vmamafrika

    The three paragraphs under the subhead 'It's easy for readers to misinterpret cues' negate the article.

  • leahb304

    There are many truths to the above article...and grammar and courtesy should not be marginalized in any communication. As a recruiter, getting hiring managers to pick up the phone and/or respond to voice mails can be a challenge, however a carefully constructed email can both inform and introduce powerful and important information. Proofreading and editing is time well spent. Thank you for the article!

  • Dennis Brinkley

    The analysis of the article is flawed with too many generalizations. Clearly, the educational value of the article is disappointing.

    One thing for certain our world is dominated by the communication of writing. More so than ever our messages of thoughts and feelings are conveyed in written strings of text.

    How we write is just as important as the subject of the communication. We should strive to be good writers.

    Emoticons can be effective and also can be an distraction like bad spelling and poorly constructed sentences. We can be creative in our writing, but artistry shouldn't be an embellishment that interferes with the basic goal of writing.

    True when it comes to building trust face-to-face meetings and verbal communications are the most effective. However, when our texts and emails are written with due diligence and gift wrapped with the condiments of civility and respect our messages in writing can be just effective in relationship building.

  • Immature to use emoticons in business? Man, I'm in serious trouble.. or perhaps I am immature. Or, maybe since the business I am in is entertainment and I'm a 'creative' it's okay to slide in the occasional wink.. or smile... as sometimes my humor can be misread.. but.. I have to be who I am. <singing> I gotta be me.... ;-)

  • Cory Johnston

    There's a lot of assertions here with only the "authority" to back them up. I suppose some of this seems intuitively correct but until someone shows me a methodology and some stats to back up claims about email language demonstrating anything specific about someone, I will remain skeptical.

  • wow.. I say the two of you complaining about the keyboard.. and the fact that you both use punctuation and asterisks to cover obscenities are perfectionists with a sense of humor. I can tell.

    drat. I need to write an article on telling personality from comments on articles.

  • Meg Brown

    Huh? None of this sounds like it was written by a person with the insight of "an international authority in psychological profiling."

  • "Chaotic emails are a sign of creativity or psychopathic tendencies."

    I sure hope the staff aren't reading too much into my email. It's all creativity, honest!!! Never any psychopathic tendencies at all. Ever. Nope.

  • You do not need a phd to know this stuff is obvious ' extraverts talk about fun-related stuff: bars, Miami, music, party, Narcissists talk about “I,” “me,” “mine,” “myself,” etc' and then the author states 'Poor grammar reflects lower levels of IQ and academic intelligence' - no it reflects you have an aptitude for the subject or had a great teacher. What tosh! Many psychological profiling has an element of unconscious bias and so gender and culturally limited - so not change here! I am surprised that fastcompany.com let this through the filters.

  • maggiedosg

    I do not agree. I don't like people writing me emails with bad grammar and thus when I see such e-mail or message I assume the person has low IQ and doesn't know how to right properly. If the person in question of mine is my friend he/she will right to me with correct grammar and if it is a stranger it shows attitude and bad attitude shows low IQ.

  • John Mack

    You're kidding, right? You deliberately wrote "right" for "write" while criticizing the grammar of others, didn't you? Zany sense of humor. You must be an extravert.

  • George E. Nelson

    "For instance, absence of typos is a sign of conscientiousness, perfectionism, and obsessionality. Poor grammar reflects lower levels of IQ and academic intelligence. '

    It's the latter that seem to be promoted.