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Email Habits Die Hard

What does your signature file say about you? Does your email correspondence project the right image? Is a smiley face ever an appropriate salutation?

Email is a window into a manager’s soul. Or, at least, it’s a juicy peephole, says organizational-behavior guru David Owens.

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Give Owens a piece of anonymous email, and he’ll tell you the author’s corporate rank and seniority. He can deduce a sender’s professional biography from a simple signature file and its inclusion or exclusion of Dilbert quotes, phone extensions, and smiley faces. “The presence of an office number instead of a cubicle location or of a direct line instead of an extension within a signature file can differentiate peers within the same work environment,” he says. “Likewise, people with Transmeta, WebTV, or Yahoo! Corporate accounts gain credibility and status markers from their email identity.”

Touted as the great equalizer among races, sexes, and ages, email is not as egalitarian as some evangelists would like to believe. According to Owens, people have already transformed electronic communication to fit some tried-and-true social structures. The killer app of the Information Age does little more than extend existing strata.

Owens, an assistant professor of management at the Owen Graduate School of Business at Vanderbilt University, has conducted various behavioral experiments to determine how different team members use the medium for communication and self-expression. He has broken down corporate-email users into three groups: low, middle, and high statuses.

Those who fall at the bottom of the status ladder use email to control the three Cs: caffeine, calories, and copies. Owens says that team members who take responsibility for low-level logistics and planning tend to overuse “paralanguage” and “emoticons” — aka cheesy quotes and smiley faces. Akin to bringing doughnuts to meetings, those low-level communicators immediately respond to colleagues’ messages with long, thoughtful letters and chummy jokes.

Middle managers also use email to compensate for their distance from the top of the ladder. To impress peers, middle-status team members tend to write long, involved messages filled with jargon — and then copy the entire team. Those email users fight for their place in the pecking order by using email to debate topics, to challenge coworkers’ points of view, and to flaunt their expertise. “Middle-status people stand to gain the most from email communication,” Owens says. “This medium’s accessibility gives them an open forum that they don’t have in face-to-face interaction.”

Less is more for high-status email users. Company leaders typically write short notes and send them less frequently than their counterparts further down the ladder. Such sparse communication reinforces the perception that leaders are extremely busy and that their attention is valuable. Owens also found that top managers prefer to fold email discussions back into live meetings, where they can regain control by setting an agenda, excluding certain people, interrupting dissenters, and summarizing a group’s progress.

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“There is a powerful tension in our relationship to technology,” Owens says. “We are excited by egalitarianism and anonymity, but we’re constantly fighting for our identity.”

Contact David Owens via email (david.owens@vanderbilt.edu).

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