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The Language of Emailing Your Boss
March 16, 2012 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on The Language of Emailing Your Boss

Some say, that you can’t get too polite in English. That we just don’t have the words for it, in comparison to those fancy French, with their vous and tus, or those “so-sorry” experts on politeness, the Japanese, who have an entirely different vocabulary called keigo, used only to address one’s social betters.  But not here in the US of A, right? Surely not in the land of the free and home of the brave where all men (and women) are created equal.

But others say that the problem for this particular republic at this particular time is that those created equal tend not to stay that way. True equality sometimes seems but a legal fiction. The weak defer to the strong, and the strong command the weak. Despite the most noble principals of the Enlightenment that we embrace, is it our base human nature to always bow and scrape to our betters, or lord it over our inferiors soon as we get the chance?

Yup. You just got to look at a lot of emails to figure it out. It’s written all over them. Eric Gilbert, a researcher at Georgia Tech can tell by the language emailers use who is the boss of who.

“An email that reads “we might” or “thought you would,” or even the word “weekend” is an example of the hedge,” says Gilbert in an NPR interview.

This is  a classic move followers use to sound obedient to leaders. Those rascals who draw paychecks here are always coming up with that kind of convoluted stuff too. “Would it please your eminence” and “may I most humbly petition you, kind sir,” that kind of stuff. Drives me nuts but I let them do it because I figure it’s good for moral.

OK, that’s kind of a stretch. What I really mean is I figure it would be good for moral, if they would speak to me that way. Only because that’s the way I talk to my sales prospects. But I’m afraid my staff would never dream of addressing me so respectfully. I am much more likely to get the hand puppet treatment, as in, “This snake puppet is Mr. IRS, and this monkey-sock is the equipment depreciation schedule,” that sort of thing. So this deference speech is a mystery to me, at least on the receiving end.

So I was wondering what makes the term “weekend” a subordinate one. Gilbert found that in the Enron email set, subordinates were always offering to trash their weekends to curry boss favor. “My home number is the following. Weekends would work fine, so give me a call anytime. And what these look like to me is, look, I’m working so hard that I’m even available to you on the weekends,” says Gilbert says. Next question: Could this be a behavior specific only to Enron’s corporate culture?

So I did a quick reality check on my inbox, and most mentions of “weekend” by my staff seem to also involve the phrase “three-day.” Unless you count the Friday afternoon sub data-set, where “week-end” is associated most often with “leaving early” and “drinking.”

So I’m not sure that I’m willing to accept Gilbert’s findings. But if he is correct, his research raise fundamental questions on my personal leadership practice, as in “Why don’t I get no respect?” Kidding of my team aside, this is actually the tip of a very interesting linguistic iceberg, but that will have to wait until the weekend is over. (See what I mean?) Until then, Rodney Dangerfield rapping on leadership and influence.  And to all my gentle readers and kind patrons, may I be so bold to wish you a great weekend also

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