Are Your Emails Communicating a Lack of Confidence?

By Kelly Tanner

Studies show that men and women communicate differently when using business email, but is the way you’re communicating clear and effective, or is your communication style leading to misunderstandings that undermine your position?

Look at the following emails. Which was more likely to have been written by a man and which by a woman?

Subject: Report
Sorry to chase you on this, but I really need that summary report by tomorrow in order to compile all the data on time for the meeting. If you could let me know when to expect it, that would be great. I really appreciate it.


The first email writer starts with an apology, though it’s unclear what the offense is. The writer expresses a need for a late report, one that is holding up their work and threatening to make them miss a deadline, yet they are apologizing and appearing overly solicitous. This style is often employed by women in the workplace. Contrast this with the second email: it is brief and to the point, almost crossing the line into cold, but it’s clear what the writer needs. This style is typically employed by men.

What Is “Offensive”?
In a University of Waterloo study entitled, “Why Women Apologize More Than Men: Gender Differences in Thresholds for Perceiving Offensive Behavior”, researcher Karina Schumann concluded that women apologize far more frequently than men because women feel far more actions warrant an apology. Her theory held whether the test participant was the person apologizing or whether they were the victim of the offense, supporting the conclusion that women have a much lower threshold for deeming something an offense. Looking back at the email example above, consider the offense: is the fact that the writer needs a report to get her work done offensive? The answer may depend on gender. Men are less likely to think that chasing a report is inappropriate behavior, while studies suggest that women are more likely to feel the need to soften the language – and apologize – when asking for what they need.

The National Research Council Canada (NRC) study “Tracking Sentiment in Mail: How Genders Differ on Emotional Axes” data mined the publicly-available Enron email database, tagging words with certain emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation, noting both the gender of the sender and the recipient. The results were telling: women prefer to use words from the joy and sadness lexicon, while men tend to use words related to fear and trust. Specifically, women are using words like problem, misunderstanding, crazy, doubt, and guilty, while men are worried about a threat, predicament, confusion, or procedure. Both men and women used more words related to anticipation when speaking to each other across genders, which shows that to some degree, men and women are aware that they communicate differently and make some effort to adapt when speaking to the opposite sex.

The Power of Words
Saif M. Mohammad is a research officer at NRC whose work focuses on natural language processing, especially lexical semantics, the study of how and what the words of a language denote. According to the researcher, there isn’t enough information available to pinpoint why it is that there is a much higher use of anticipation words when communicating across genders than when communicating within. What the information we have does suggest, however, is that the words we use greatly impact how others see us.

“People make judgments about others based on a number of things, not the least of which is the words they use, so learning more about the kinds of words we use can be empowering,” Mohammad said. “Studying similarities and differences between groups of people – including men vs. women and employees vs. managers – can lead to interesting findings, especially about their relationships. In some cases, such insights may be sources of change. For example, if the persistent use of certain words can lead to a perception of being less reliable, trustworthy, or understanding, then we might want to change that. On the other hand, some differences across groups are worth cherishing. The world will be less exciting if everybody speaks the same way.”

Take Time to Reflect on Your Message
Email offers a rare opportunity to take a step back and reflect on how we may be perceived. While the urge to simply hit “Send” can be significant when the inbox is piling up, dashing off an email without any reflection is a missed opportunity. Are you needlessly apologizing for something? Does it read like you’re not confident or comfortable with asking for what you need? A quick scan through, taking a minute or two at the most, can positively impact your colleagues’ perception of you. So why not take the time?

We all know that the intention or tone of an email can easily be misinterpreted, which adds to the argument that taking time to reflect on your message can only be beneficial.

“Electronic communication is greatly impoverished in terms of conveying our emotions,” Mohammad said. “When we speak to someone face-to-face, the other person draws a remarkable amount of information from our tone, our facial expressions, and our body language. One needs to put in much more effort when writing to convey how we feel accurately and without ambiguity. Often, we mistakenly assume that the reader will read the text exactly as how we hear it in our head.”

That being said, the researcher says that increasingly popular emoticons aren’t necessarily the ticket, either.

“Emoticons are often not the best means of communicating emotions, both in formal or informal email. They are tempting to use because then we think we do not have to work a little harder in writing better, but we almost always communicate better when we take the time to re-read our email, rephrase where appropriate, and write in a manner that communicates not only the transactional information but also our attitude and demeanor,” Mohammad said.

The next time you find yourself having to chase someone down for a late report, reconsider whether it’s you who should be apologizing.