What does your email style say about you? Beware, new research is saying that too many typos or excessive punctuation could make you look apathetic or girly.
"This is something that is so new for humans, and it's a very artificial way to interact when you think about it," said study researcher Frank McAndrew, of Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., referring to the lack of many of the physical signals we take for granted when having a discussion in person. Many people we email with we never meet in person, or even hear their voices.
"If we understand the types of judgments that we make and the way people process information from emails, if we know how that works we might be able to be better communicators, and get a better sense of how people are responding to us," McAndrew said.
McAndrew and his colleagues asked 166 undergraduates to read emails with slight tweaks to their style and grammar.The researchers also added in up to five exclamation and question marks into the text, which was about 80 words long.Participants were then asked to rate the emotional tone of the email and note what kind of relationship they believed the recipient had with the writer. They were also asked to guess the writer's sex.
Writers whose emails included more errors were believed to be more apathetic. Messages written in the third person (for example, "the group made a decision" instead of "we made a decision") conveyed a sense of formality, and participants were more likely to assume the writer was a superior.
Many of the factors combined to give the reader an impression of the writer's tone. Use of the third person along with excessive use of question marks rated high on the anger scale. A person using many exclamation points and the first person was perceived as feminine and happy.
"The punctuation sets the tone of the message; if you write it in the first or the third person amplifies whatever that effect was," McAndrew told LiveScience.
Sadly, they didn't test how creepy or cute people think winkey faces are.
Is this really any different than responding to a chat, social media message or even a handwritten letter?
"I think that what we are responding to in the email message is the same thing we would be responding to in any written discourse," McAndrew said. Though there might be a distinction between a quickly written email message and a thoughtful, handwritten letter, not only in content but in how careful the writer would be with tone and style, he said.
Because the participants were undergraduates, it's possible that their life-long exposure to email as a communication tool, as well as the use of other Internet-based communication tools like social networking and instant messaging, could skew the results of the study in this sample, McAndrew said, though he doesn't think that is necessarily the case.
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Jennifer Welsh is a Connecticut-based science writer and editor and a regular contributor to Live Science. She also has several years of bench work in cancer research and anti-viral drug discovery under her belt. She has previously written for Science News, VerywellHealth, The Scientist, Discover Magazine, WIRED Science, and Business Insider.