What’s in an email? How first impressions are founded through electronic communication

Commonly, nowadays, first impressions are made via email – “Here, let me introduce you to so-and-so. I’ve CC’d him on this email.”

As one can imagine, real life first impressions and email first impressions are very different things. You can’t shake their hand, hear their voice, or see their facial or body expressions through an email. You can only read what they “say.” And you can only type to them, whether you’re initiating conversation or replying to them for the first time, and hope they perceive you correctly. Trouble is, you may never know.

A little help in clarifying this foggy concern of many comes in the form of one of the first studies of its kind: researchers have identified three commonly used email elements that are decidedly influential in shaping how others perceive us through email – regardless of whether those conclusions accurately reflect who we truly are. Whether the reader does so focusedly or subconsciously, they judge our emails on our they’re written and formulate opinions of us. This is why it’s advantageous to know what can alter their perception. From the Montreal Gazette:

“Very subtle little things you might not think about when writing an email -like the kind of punctuation you use, for example -actually have an effect on the people reading that message,” says study co-author Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois. “If you’re emailing a friend, they’re not going to change their opinion of you based on how the message is put together. But for first impressions, we find these (variables) really matter.”

The new study, co-authored by Chelsea Rae De Jonge, which appears in a future issue of Social Psychological & Personality Science, looks at three elements: first person versus third person, typographical errors, and punctuation.

Emails written in the third person. This type of email conveys a sense of formality that “caused study participants to believe the message had come from someone in a supervisory position.” Readers may presume the sender is angry. There is a perceived intimacy of first-person emails. “Third person comes across as cold and distant,” says Frank. “You’re removing yourself from the interaction, in a way.”

Emails riddled with errors. These emails gave readers the impression that the sender was apathetic. Frank suggests this effect is particularly strong with an older demographic that didn’t grow up with text-messaging and instant messaging. “Younger people are accustomed to (typographical errors), whereas someone older might take it more personally, or make stronger judgments about the intellect of the person sending the message,” he explains.

Punctuation. This proved highly influential in moulding people’s opinions. Interestingly, emails with no question marks or exclamation points were interpreted as being sent by a superior. Contrastingly, emails that included many question marks and exclamation points were perceived as coming from a subordinate. Question marks convey anger and confusion, while exclamation points communicate happiness. The absence of both implies apathy. A high frequency of both caused readers to assume the sender was female. “I guess it’s the old stereotype of women being more expressive and emotional. A text message or email that’s chock-full of question marks and exclamation points comes across as a little girlie, for lack of a better way to phrase it,” says Frank. “Real men don’t use punctuation; they use caveman-like direct, short sentences.”

Plus, girls and periods don’t always get along.