In a recent series of viral TikTok videos, users have been poking fun at the difference between the email etiquette of men and women in professional workplaces. The videos switch out the excessively polite and friendly language used by women to satirically suggest that men are much more assertive, such as replacing the complimentary sign off ‘best wishes’ with the egotistical statement ‘I am the best’. Obviously this takes the point to an extreme, but these videos are important to make us question: Why do women soften their language in professional settings? Sophie Robinson investigates.
If you are a woman, you may find yourself decorating your emails with smiley faces, exclamation marks in overt attempts to make yourself seem! really! friendly! And as a man, you may wonder why your emails from female colleagues are filled with such courtesies – I know I have been questioned on this myself. But it seems that women don’t just use these symbolic features to make their emails softer; it’s also the language itself which acts to compromise the authority of women in the workplace.
Where do these expectations of politeness for women in the workplace come from?
In a video shared on TikTok by the user @vivsmee, the woman writes a fictional email to a male colleague, replacing ‘can you please’ to ‘please’, ‘I think the data is inconsistent’ to ‘the data is inconsistent’, in addition to removing her exclamation mark. The comments under this video reflect that this culture of gendered emails rings true to many people’s experience, with one user writing: ‘I started doing this at work and I felt so mean’, and another remarking: ‘me sending emails like this and being told I have a “tone” by other women.’ But where do these expectations of politeness for women in the workplace come from?
It could be argued that women qualify statements with permission words such as ‘just’ and hedges like ‘I think’ and ‘I feel’ to express caution about what they are saying in male dominated corporate settings. In 2015, tech worker Tami Reiss invented a Gmail plugin which she called ‘Just Not Sorry’ which works similarly to a spell checker by highlighting softening phrases like ‘so sorry’. She created this because she felt that she was using cautious language which undermined her ideas in the workplace, and wanted to increase her sense of authority by sounding more ‘manly’. However, this only reinforces that the stereotypical male style of writing is the only way to be taken seriously in workplace email culture.
This echoes the double standard for women in the workplace – that emailing in the stereotypical female style is both unprofessional and reinforces the stereotype that women should be more submissive and apologetic, however ‘emailing like a man’ perpetuates that male corporate culture should be the aspiration of women. So, – to quote Sister2Sister – what’s a girl to do?
The honest answer is: whatever you want. Be friendly. Be assertive. No one is saying you must email like a man. Career coach Hannah Salton said that the reason men tend to write shorter, blunter emails is because they generally tend to worry less about what people think. But, is it such a problem to come across as friendly in emails? I think it depends on your relationship with the email recipient and the professional context, but smiley faces and pleasantries won’t do any harm. Plus who doesn’t appreciate a bit of politeness now and then?
This issue of email language reflects the wider problem of gendered power imbalances in the workplace
On the other hand, in the face of mansplaining, I think it’s important to hold your ground and use less apologetic language as a woman. This issue of email language reflects the wider problem of gendered power imbalances in the workplace because men are often expected to be assertive and ambitious, whereas women are expected to be more accommodating. A man who speaks regularly and for prolonged periods in professional environments is seen as confident, whereas a woman who speaks often is bossy or pushy.
Just take the example of the Japanese Olympic Committee, who were discussing bringing more women onto boards in sports when the male leader, Yoshiro Mori, said: ‘When you increase the number of female executive members, if their speaking time isn’t restricted to a certain extent, they have difficulty finishing, which is annoying.’
Too many women have had to learn how to disagree without being confrontational and raise their voices without being aggressive
Mori continued to state that: ‘We have about seven women on the organising committee, but everyone understands their place’. And too many professional women have just accepted their ‘place’, because they are expected to act in a certain way. Too many women have had to learn how to disagree without being confrontational and raise their voices without being aggressive.
So when it comes to writing an email, I think that the use of greetings such as ‘I hope you are well’ and exclamation marks is a matter of personal writing style. However, I also think it is important to step back sometimes and question why we as women may be writing in this way- is it because we want to be friendly or are we avoiding confrontation? There’s a difference between writing your professional emails in a way that you want to and writing them in a way you feel you have to.
For more content including uni news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.