21-Jul, 17:36

13:57, October 29 130 0

2016-10-29 13:57:13
Command Z: Judging Others by Their Email Tics

Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, but I recently found myself having a full-fledged meltdown, prompted by an email signature. Specifically, my own email signature (or lack of one): that little one-line signoff that comes at the end of your iPhone message, telling the person on the other end that you’ve sent the message from your mobile device.

Sure, there was a time it may have been appropriate, even cool, to tout the default “Sent from my iPhone,” a programmed plug-in (and a genius little bit of branding). But these days, that one-liner signals only one thing: bore.

So instead, you must come up with something witty. “Sent from a bumpy tarmac,” you might write, followed by a custom GIF. “Envoi de mon iPhone,” if you want to be fancy (and French).

The director Shonda Rhimes famously signs her emails with “Sent from the room where it happens,” followed by a bite-size statement on work-life balance, noting that she will not respond to emails after 7 p.m. The writer Roxane Gay signs off, “Sent from a magical awesome telephonic device from the future. You might call it an iPhone.”

But if you’re me, you simply sign off with nothing. Because, it turns out, you actually have nothing witty to say. Which is where my agitation began, but not where it ended, as I began to reread the original message and wonder: Had I used too many exclamation points, making me sound unserious? Was I replying too quickly (overeager?) or not quickly enough?

I had addressed this person with “hi,” but before this moment we were strangers. Were we in more of a “hey” style relationship?

And so goes the tyranny of judging one another by the minutiae of our email tone. I’m not just talking signoffs like “cheers” or “thanks” (which, for what it’s worth, have prompted a debate of their own). I’m talking next-level nuance: a well-placed emoji, a perfectly timed GIF; what microseconds between replies say about the sender.

“This isn’t just email, this is identity,” said Hilary Campbell, a 25-year-old cartoonist in Brooklyn. “I feel like I’m always trying to balance this sense of being a smart, sensible, reliable person who is also very FUN and quirky.” So she peppers drawings into her emails. She plays with punctuation and capitalization (note the “FUN”). Sometimes she signs off with “Puppy Hugs, Hilary” (though, she noted, she’s not sure if that’s doing her any favors in the being-taken-seriously category).

It’s a lot to think about, from subtle cues in punctuation (“I get frightened when people don’t use exclamation points,” Ms. Campbell said) to specific emoji choice to indicate tonal nuance.

“I’ve found that we all tend to use emoji a ton to help signal meaning,” said Deeksha Gaur, a founder of Show-Score, a website in New York City for theater reviews. “It’s actually a great way to communicate emotion since people can’t see your face.”

Once you put one foot into the rabbit hole, it’s easy to sink deep. There are interpretations of response time: Do you want to be perceived as that available by responding immediately? Or will you, like me, forget to reply altogether if you don’t do it fast?

“Sometimes I get the vibe from people that they deliberately keep their emails short to seem busier than they are,” said Grace Murray, an account director at a start-up.

There’s the initial greeting (hello, hey or dear) and whether to maintain consistency. “When starting a new email thread, I sometimes go back and look through my previous email correspondence with that person to see whether we’re on ‘hi’ or ‘hey’ terms,” said Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who studies internet language.

There’s also what it says about you if you don’t. Research has found that when parties are getting along, they tend to mimic each other’s subtle speech patterns: “language synchrony,” as it is known. In which case, if I email with proper capitalization, and you reply with an all-lowercase email, should I be taking offense?

“That’s a classic power move,” the digital strategist Victor Pineiro said. “You can’t be bothered to craft a properly capitalized email?”

There’s also the option of replacing words with icons altogether. Excited for a coming event? Perhaps a GIF of a popping champagne cork can express that feeling better than words can. Does 4 p.m. work for you for a call? Two thumbs-up emoji will do the trick.

“I love a good wink, so GIFs in my emails tend to be the digital equivalent,” said Julie Logan, a partnerships manager at Giphy, a database for animated GIFs.

There are also fun new ways of introducing humans, like placing a “<>” between names in a subject line (for example: Sara <> Jessica) as code for “guys, meet each other.”

There’s how you sign your name: “My father-in-law uses B/, my boss uses a simple lowercase ‘t’ for first name, and I use my initials lowercase,” Ms. Gaur said. And a “+” sign to indicate you’re adding another person on the chain (“+ Jessica”), useful for group conversations, meetings, reminders or passive-aggressively adding your boss.

And to that regard, there are subtle ways of doing such, signified by things like address hierarchy (the order of who’s in your “to” box versus your “cc”), or quietly BCC-ing people on an email so as to let them eavesdrop on the conversation.

Or, in the case of the start-up founder Tony Haile, creating an actual reference sheet of code words for his admin help so he can convey when he wants the person on the other end to scram without ever having to take him off the chain.

“Essentially I want to be able to deal with emails as fast as possible, and have my E.A. know exactly what I really want to do with this meeting, or if I even want to have it at all,” he said, referring to his executive assistant.

And so, if Mr. Haile actually wants to meet with you in person, he’ll say something to the effect of “Justin will find us time to get together” — which is not to be confused with “Justin can find us some time to talk,” which means: set up a call.

If he really doesn’t want to talk to you, he’ll make sure to add a signature to his email, something to the effect of: “Sent from my mobile device,” which means, in effect, “Put this person off as long as humanly possible, or make them go away.”

There are the land mines, of course — and plenty of them: forgetting to put somebody on the BCC line after she has made an introduction, so as to spare her the half-dozen emails “Ping-Ponging back and forth,” said Meredith Fineman, the founder of a public relations firm.

And those who decide to write their entire message in the subject line. “Seriously, we’re all busy, but we’re not animals,” Mr. Pineiro said. “I don’t send you letters with my entire message scrawled on the envelope.”

Or how about introducing a person to “my assistant, Amy,” whom one very quickly realizes is not in fact a human at all, but Amy.io, an operating system. So now you’ve spent six emails being misinterpreted, and you feel like an idiot for trying to explain things to a robot?

And that witty signoff can backfire. Remember “Envoi de mi iPhone”? Turns out that man doesn’t even know how to speak French.