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Do women write better e-mails?
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May 20, 2005

Who writes better e-mails in India? Women or men?

A pioneering study done by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad on the relationship between gender, politeness and e-mail content has come out with interesting details.

The e-mail survey was conducted by IIM-A Associate Professor in Communications Asha Kaul and academic associate Vaibhavi Kulkarni.

For the purpose of the study, the authors sent e-mails to various organisations in India soliciting samples of work related e-mails.

Additionally, students and colleagues were requested to share task-oriented e-mails. 494 e-mails were received. Of these, 250 were written by men and 244 by women. All names were deleted from the e-mails. The gender, 'male' or 'female', of the sender was written on top of the mails to facilitate coding on the basis of gender.

All mails had either a request (pertaining to work) to be made, job/task to be assigned, or information to be solicited. While all e-mails were task-oriented, they varied in the degree and form of politeness.

Some adhered to explicit expressions of politeness in the interest of securing cooperation, some indicated presence of more than one maxim of politeness, some made use of 'explicit expression of politeness through words' or politeness indicators as 'Please', 'Thank you', some directly violated the politeness maxims.

What are the findings of the survey?

An example of sympathy that women and men showed in their e-mails:

Women: 'Now that you mention it, I do remember your name (and IIM) from the programme. Israel (not only Eilat but also Tel Aviv, where I spent a night after the conference) was fabulous -- too bad you missed it.'

Men: 'I am saddened by the devastation that your country and so many others have suffered.'

What prompted IIM-A to embark on the study?

Prof Kaul says IIM-A embarked on the study to analyse the level or extent of politeness or type of principles used/abused to solicit cooperation in e-mails by males and females in India.

"The study is an attempt to get an understanding of e-mails written by men and women in India," Prof Kaul told "An analysis of gender written communication patterns in the use of politeness within e-mails in India would lead to a better understanding of how men and women approach task oriented communication," she pointed out.

IIM-A academic associate Vaibhavi Kulkarni said they were interested in the study because with the increasing number of women at workplace, task-oriented interaction between men and women has increased.

"Getting work done requires cooperation from other colleagues, external clients, etc and it becomes important to maintain politeness for the same," she said.

At the same time, Kulkarni pointed out, e-mails are being used frequently to communicate at work and they take a form of 'intellectual written shorthand' and are often informal in nature.

"Hence, we wanted to know whether the same kind of politeness principles are also followed in e-mails. Also, we were interested in how gender can affect the use politeness in e-mails," she told

Prof Kaul says the study raises several issues related to e-mails, gender and its effect on use of cooperation through politeness and politeness maxims in task-oriented e-mails written by men and women.

They include the extent to which emphasis should be laid on intent and explicit expression, significance of use of specific/certain words, universality of principles for writing e-mails, relation between gender patterns in written language and e-mails and role of politeness in defining the quantum of cooperation in e-mails.

The researchers say the study of e-mails in the context of gender and politeness is still a fertile ground for future researchers.

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