The Language of Emailing Your Boss

by Translation Guy on March 16, 2012

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


  1. Where did you find such a jem like “Rappin’ Rodney?” I haven’t seen that video in decades, yet I remembered every detail as I watched it. He was always great to watch on late night shows. Very funny. Thanks for the memory, Ken.

  2. Oskar Thau says:

    My kids always said “what” when I called them. They moved to Canada with mommy and now they say “pardon.” I blame the US of A for our lack of politeness. No wonder the rest of the world hates us.

  3. I live in Quebec and no matter how polite we try to talk here, it doesn’t come out that way. There are some pretty ugly talking wanna be French people here. I have always been fancy to the English and their pretty formal way of talking, at least in the movies.

  4. No matter where you live the language evolves around entertainment. Watch modern movies and listen to modern radio…who is polite anymore? We are creating a lazy susan vocabulary that changes every season.

  5. Joseph says:

    The boss needs to set the tone. Email ettiquette is definetely something that should be addressed in the workplace and when people slip, it should be just like disciplining a four year old. Let them know what they did and how it should be done. Cleaning up the correspondence won’t happen over night, but it won’t ever happen if the boss doens’t relay what is expected.

  6. tmanor says:

    I would rather have an employee of mine just communicate in complete sentences rather than be so polite. I am getting tired of all the abbreviations and poor grammar from the so called educated help I have.

  7. Martin says:

    I’m my own boss and even I have trouble not putting the work weekend into emails to myself.

  8. I sbeing polite so important anymore? Isn’t communication the main goal? Get rid of the fancy stuff, it usually was for the rich who wanted to think they were better, anyway.

  9. Yes, how does the word “weekend” fit into this? Also, why would an employee email the boss about the weekend unless it was to make sure he understands your already busy.

  10. Two things: I think our culture has created a lack of respect among each other and that shows with how we communication has changed. I also think that bosses don’t know how to be bosses anymore. Everyone wants to be friends and that creates a casualness in teh workplace that doesn’t belong. If the employees aren’t going home and complaining about the boss, then the boss isn’t being a boss.

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