Up, down and sideways | Language in emails

Enron’s spectacular failure has much to teach us – about codes of ethics, the need for transparency and the implications of language.

Yes, language. Enron’s email was acquired by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during its investigation of the company’s collapse – and the “corpus” of over 600,000 emails from 150+ employees has proved fertile ground for language researchers.

One of those researchers – Eric Gilbert of the Georgia Institute of Technology – took a close look at the connection between email language and corporate hierarchy, in a study titled “Phrases That Signal Workplace Hierarchy,” released in February 2012.

He concludes that we use very different words and phrases in emails to individuals up above us on the corporate ladder (“Up emails”) than we do in emails to our colleagues or subordinates (“Not up emails.”)

Up email language
Here’s a quick look at some of the words and phrases that signal email direction:

Emails to our superiors in the corporate hierarchy are likely to include the word thank, in phrases such as:

“thank you for your comments”

“thank you for your prompt response”

“thank you for the opportunity”

“thank all of you for allowing”

Other words and phrases seen often in upward emails:


that we might


thought you would

thoughts on

your review


sounds good

Not-up email language

Emails that were not headed upward were likely to use phrases ending with the word talk:

“let’s talk”

“like to talk”

“need to talk”

“could you please talk”

Other typical not-up words and phrases:

have you been

let’s discuss

the problem is

I hope you

Neutral email language

Relatively few phrases had no predictive power. They include:

have been working


we discussed


I am forwarding

can’t believe

Do the emails that you send and receive match this pattern? As much as I hate to admit it, I know that mine do!

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