What Your E-mail Etiquette Says About You

Misspellings in notes from powerful people communicate a none-too-friendly message.

I am meticulous with my e-mails, and I'm not ashamed to admit that. I take my time with them. I'm careful. If I'm sending you an e-mail, not only will I make a geeky gold-star effort to capitalize your name and put a period at the end of each sentence, but I'll even go so far as to, you know, craft the damn thing—the way (I kid myself) James Thurber might have crafted his droll rejoinders to E.B. White. Sometimes I'll consult a thesaurus. In doing all this, I've gradually been forced to accept that I am making a complete yodeling ass of myself.

Why? Because whenever I deliver one of these properly spelled, grammatically clean, and beautifully composed e-mails to some guy in Hollywood, or on Capitol Hill, or in the hectic terrordome of high finance, I get a quick response, usually fired off from a BlackBerry, that goes something like this: "pstrrryix." Or maybe "w7 ok tue." Or, if I'm lucky, "swampd lets tlk thrusday how teh kidz?"

E-blurts—we all get them. They're crimes against every known law of spelling and grammar, and yes, they're bound to happen when human fingers sprint hurly-burly over a handheld keypad so tiny that it couldn't be operated by a field mouse. But even the most garbled and indecipherable of them are saying something, and what they have to say is, in terms of social status, a bummer. See, the e-blurt, like so many modes of personal expression, is all about power.

It's clear to me now that the people who run the world spell stuff poorly on purpose. To shoot a messy spitball through the cybernetic air is to convey a very simple and subconscious message to its recipient: I am busier than you, hence I am more powerful than you. "Demonstrating that you're utterly incapable of doing basic administrative tasks places you in a higher bureaucratic stratum," Elizabeth Spiers, the founder of the Wall Street gossip blog DealBreaker.com, writes in—let it be noted—an impeccably proofread e-mail. "If you can't possibly answer your own phone or press Ctrl + P to print something out, it's not because you're lazy, it's because you're important and you don't have time for that sort of thing. Along the same lines: a disinclination to form complete, typo-less sentences in e-mails. Adding that extra vowel and holding down the shift key requires a level of detail orientation that powerful people don't have."

Way back in the 20th century, proper grammar was a sign of education, which tended to stroll arm in arm with superior status. But these days it is often the highly wired overlords, and those who aspire to march among them, who choose to express themselves in the brute vernacular of 12-year-old mall rats. Casting about for examples, I asked around and came upon these delightful communiqués:

"I'm aight, tlking today.....cl u tonight?"

"I think beth 99 pewrcent in kust spoke to her."

"Soo annoyingm."

Yeah, it is rather annoyingm. Especially when your original note was meant to carry ever-so-subtle echoes of Marcus Aurelius and the Butthole Surfers. (Gosh, did the dude miss that?) "It makes you feel like a sucker," says language maven Leslie Savan, the author of Slam Dunks and No-Brainers. "So much of e-mail communication is about selling yourself, and you are selling yourself as someone who's striving and trying. You're not there yet, because your e-mails are perfectly written and grammatically correct."

True Machiavellians know better than that. "If you are a powerful person and you communicate in sloppy or misspelled words, it works two ways," Savan explains. "One, it says that you're sort of 'hip' powerful. You're not formal and stuffy. And done right, it can also remind people of your power. In other words, you're so confident of your position in life that what might be considered errors for others are not errors for you."

For an executive, there is the extra, Greenspanish glee of making everybody figure out what the hell you mean. "You're using that tool to communicate," Nancy Flynn says. "And if your reader can't understand what you're saying, then, of course, you haven't accomplished your goal." Well...unless that is your goal. Flynn is the executive director of the ePolicy Institute in Ohio; she's written several books about e-mail, and she's served as both a consultant on the fine points of netiquette and an expert witness in lawsuits involving e-mail. "I had a client," she says, "who was the CEO of an international corporation—otherwise a very professional person—but he would send me these e-mail messages that were so illogical, so garbled, so full of spelling errors, that every time he'd send me a message, I'd have to re-read it several times."


Still, the catch is that that CEO might be planting the seeds of his own sabotage. As Flynn explains, "If your poorly written e-mail messages are retained as part of the company's electronic business records, and the company is hit with a lawsuit, and your e-mail is subpoenaed, the fact that your messages were written in an unprofessional, illogical way could come back to haunt not only you but the company as well. Because that may help support a plaintiff's claim that it wasn't a professional work environment. I'm here to tell you that those e-mail messages are carefully examined in litigation situations."

Which only confirms what I've always felt about power: that the people who really understand it don't say anything at all.


Some classic examples of power misspelling, forwarded by informants in the field.

1) Message: lw w J

Written by: Book agent to client

Translation: I left word with James, but I haven't heard back from him yet.

2) Message: no sk conv chat 1 min

Written by: Public-relations executive to assistant

Translation: Let's not talk about this on our Sidekicks. I'll call you in a minute so we can chat on the phone.

3) Message: zomfg r crazy call iam

Written by: Marketing executive to friend

Translation: Oh, my fucking God, you are crazy. I will call you in a minute.

4) Message: szs. hr/mu?

Written by: Movie publicist to editor

Translation: Attached are the star's sizes. Who will be doing her hair and makeup?

5) Message: I think beth 99 pewrcent in kust spoke to her

Written by: Actor's agent to magazine writer

Translation: I am almost positive Beth will be able to make it. I just spoke to her.


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