If you’re anything like me, and TikTok takes up the majority of your daily screen time, you’ll be familiar with many of the trends that come and go. One, in particular, has been stuck in the back of my mind ever since it became popular. Like most concepts on the app, it was simply intended to entertain, but instead, it became some interesting food for thought about gender inequality - for us all, actually.
The basic concept was to light-heartedly poke fun at the various common differences in the ways that women in professional industries tend to write emails, compared to their male counterparts.
Users participating in the trend would pretend to write a standard work email. The joke lay in that they’d review it, then erase aspects of an email that are typical of female email etiquette, only to replace them with considerably different, more generally "male" phrasing. This included removing the abundance of exclamation marks and the often excessive peppering of 'please's' and 'thank you's' throughout, and the results were all too noticeable. Sometimes the length of the entire email was halved by the end.
"Can you please...?" was reduced to simply "Please…".
"I think that this would…" became "This will…".
One of my favourites was when a girl joked about changing "Best wishes!" to simply "I am the best!".
Of course, that example is extreme, but the differences really got me and a lot of others wondering: why do so many women feel the unconscious need to soften their language and amp up their politeness in the workplace?
Is it just a personality issue or does it speak to the differences in perceptions of authority and gender inequality that still exists to disadvantage women?
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m personally one of the biggest culprits of this overly friendly, excessively polite "female" way of speaking. Going back through my Sent box, I’m surprised a lot of my emails haven’t been mistaken for a Hallmark card.
The part I play in the stereotype is why I remember that TikTok trend every time I’m at work, and what led to me exploring it further.
To clarify what I mean when I talk about gendered email etiquette, it’s a range of things that many women and men will recognise and relate to:
Women tend to apologise a lot more, even when they’re the ones being inconvenienced, and will regularly throw in a "No worries if not!" when in fact, it is a worry - and a big one. We’ll often dress up our emails with too many similar unnecessary niceties.
Of course, I’m not suggesting we should instead be as rude as possible, but I sure say a lot of "Hope you had a lovely weekend!" when I’m sure my male colleagues (and I, to be honest) don’t actually care if you did or not. The crucial issue here is that regardless, I always instinctively feel as though my email would come across as insistent and borderline heartless if I didn’t say that.
Kindred. spoke to Judith Quin, a London-based Vocal Confidence and Communication Coach, who equally used to do things like this all the time - now she tries to catch herself in doing so and deletes it as she goes.
She notes how women are "more likely to use 'just' as a word and to explain why they're asking for what they're asking for, or why they can't do something" by giving lots of information.
As for men?
Well, they’ll tend to negotiate to get exactly what they want, generally caring more about what could be an inconvenience to them. They’re more succinct and direct, using more blunt language and often minimal manners. Basically, not an ounce of beating around the bush there.
I’ve thought a lot about where these tendencies may have originated from.
Perhaps the fear of seeming rude or demanding when you’re simply stating what you need, or asking a colleague to perform a certain task, stems from classic sexist ideas that have been ingrained in many of us since birth. A woman in the workplace being considered bossy in comparison to her male counterpart who would be deemed assertive is all too familiar to a lot of us.
Perhaps in offices where most of the senior positions are filled by men, there are similar gender and power imbalances created within the workplace, making women behave unconsciously more passive.
Quin interestingly adds that often, it’s "people-pleasing which tends to be more present in women" and them "trying not to 'get in the way' and making sure that they are understood - especially when making demands or having to decline something".
So, how should women act from now on when it comes to email etiquette? Here are a few of Quin’s suggestions:
1) Try to change your mindset about direct communication in general. Remember that we all like it when people are clear with us so think of it as being clear rather than rude.
2) "I find that numbering or bullet-pointing things helps, especially if it's a request for something, actions that need to happen, or where there will be several people involved."
3) "If you're declining something, you don't need to give all the reasons why you can't do it for fear of getting into trouble or hurting or offending people. When we give a whole bunch of reasons, they start to sound like excuses to others, so do yourself a favour and keep it short and simple."
So next time you’re carefully crafting an email at work and feel required to come across as really super friendly take a moment to think. It’s okay to be naturally passive, and it’s certainly okay to be polite - and by no means should you have to get rid of your exclamation key altogether.
But us women deserve to unashamedly hold the confidence in getting what we want in the workplace just as men do - and step by step, we can.
Are you guilty of being overly nice in your emails? Let us know in the comments!