How bosses use email when they want to get things done

Bosses sound the same across cultures when they want things done. But for most of us, there is a 50% chance our emails get misinterpreted.

There is a universal way in which bosses sound, well, ‘bossy’, especially when they want to get things done. Power and authority get expressed in similar ways in emails across different cultures, according to new Victoria University research comparing business communication in Malaysia and New Zealand.

While cultural differences apply in terms of how language is used to maintain social rapport, when bosses want traction, they inevitably apply a commanding tone to get things done, the research found.

Jackie Yeoh, who graduated in 2014 from Victoria University with a PhD in Applied Linguistics, says of those surveyed in her research: “They all used imperative mood, boosting devices (terms like ‘ASAP’ or ‘of course’),” adding that the ‘I’ personal pronoun was often used.

“The use of a combination of these strategies clearly showed that more emphasis was placed on getting the job done rather than maintaining rapport in these workplaces."

Jackie Yeoh researched the cultural differences of communicating using email

Her research covered over 1700 internal work-related emails from two New Zealand companies and one in Malaysia, supplemented by workplace visits, questionnaires and interviews. Her interest in the topic was sparked when she worked for several large organisations in Malaysia and wanted to compare the more formal business emails there with those in New Zealand workplaces.

“I noticed in the course of my work that some Malaysian colleagues tended to use the imperative mood (direct commands such as ‘Give me that report by 2pm’) when making requests of their colleagues, which could be interpreted as rather forceful and sometimes impolite,” she says.

She notes that when she was managing staff, it was sometimes difficult to assert power and authority via email and at the same time maintain good rapport with her staff.

Her research found Kiwi workplace communications are mostly informal, with emails addressed to a recipient on a first name basis regardless of status. In contrast, in Asia, particularly in Malaysia, superiors get addressed in a more formal way such as ‘Dear’ plus the recipient’s title (Mr or Mrs) and failure to do so would be deemed highly disrespectful.

Wrong message

The challenge of reflecting emotions in emails can be a tricky one, given that research into email communication suggests there is a 50% chance of the message intended being misread.

Although showing how we ‘feel’ on emails has had a boost from emoticons, especially emojis, research suggests that in the absence of a tool for expressing emotions, there are risks associated with not getting the right communication across.

Daniel Goleman, famed for his research on emotional intelligence, wrote in the New York Times that when we encounter an email through a computer screen, our brains have no channels to calibrate emotions. This is different from face-to-face communications, or phone conversations, which provide many levels of information enabling us to interpret the information exchanged.

“Most crucially, the brain’s social circuitry mimics in our neurons what’s happening in the other person’s brain, keeping us on the same wavelength emotionally. This neural dance creates an instant rapport that arises from an enormous number of parallel information processors, all working instantaneously and out of our awareness,” Goleman says, noting that this is not so for emails.

Emails and conflicts

He points to a piece of research from the Academy of Management Review, done by Kristin Byron, an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management, which found that emails increased the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication.

This is reinforced by an older piece of research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which found that online messages are misinterpreted 50% of the time, according to Business Insider.

Even when writers of emails think they’re being crystal clear; their tone will be properly interpreted only 80% of the time, the research notes.

Here is the danger: people overestimate both their ability to convey their intended tone - be it sarcastic, serious or funny-when they send an e-mail, as well as their ability to correctly interpret the tone of messages others send to them.