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Should You Email Like a Man? (There's a Difference)

Whether you hail from Mars or Venus may say a lot about how you email--and how your colleagues perceive you.
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Earlier this week, CNBC news anchor Maria Bartiromo announced during a segment on Closing Bell that one of her New Year’s resolutions was to start "emailing like a guy." 

What does that mean, exactly?, websites like Business Insider were quick to question.

It might be more straightforward than you think, says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and author of You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. 

Consider the colleague who signs business correspondence "xo" or softens an authoritative statement with a smiley face. There's one in your office, right?

"In general, women tend to write longer emails and are more likely to use expression or--I am inclined to say--emotion," says Tannen. "Women tend to mix personal talk with work talk."

Naturally, men also talk about things besides work (small talk is not gender specific)--but they tend to be subjects like sports or shared hobbies, which are construed as neutral, not personal, topics. While women insert emotional or humorous phrases to show that they are well intentioned, men sometimes perceive this as a form of oversharing.

But is emailing "like a woman" all bad? Yes and no, Tannen says. In the workplace, being open and emotionally transparent with team members might result in greater trust and collaboration.

"In terms of getting work done, [women's] style of communication is going to work well with people who share and value that style," she says. However, when women who communicate in a more personal or informal style are being evaluated by superiors who do not share or value this style, the use of emotional text can be perceived as frivolous.

Yet men aren't exactly in the clear, either. Tannen says the use of sarcasm also varies widely by gender. Men tend to use sarcasm more frequently than women, and the connotations often vary. Women tend to use sarcasm in a negative way, while men use it jokingly or when teasing colleagues.

"This can be difficult for women to understand," explains Tannen, who adds that nonverbal communication formats (such as email or text) can contribute to the misinterpretation of humor between colleagues--both male and female.

When making a joke in person, she says, the speaker can gauge how her statement is being received and correct herself if the joke is misinterpreted. However, if the person being addressed is not there to provide feedback to the speaker, an inappropriately placed piece of humor or affection can have more lasting damage.

Tannen's advice to men and women in the workplace? You probably don't have to worry about "emailing like a woman." Just take a moment to consider whether the words--or emoticons--you use in business correspondence fall into the category of overly informal. That smiley face with a tongue hanging out (:P)? Save that one for friends.

Last updated: Feb 7, 2013

FRANCESCA FENZI | Staff Writer

Francesca Fenzi reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle.




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