If an email contains “thought you would,” the recipient outranks the sender; if it contains “let’s discuss,” the opposite

February 29th, 2012

Fascinating research by scanning the emails sent within the Enron hierarchy.

Hierarchy fundamentally shapes how we act at work. In this paper, we explore the relationship between the words people write in workplace email and the rank of the email’s recipient. Using the Enron corpus as a dataset, we perform a close study of the words and phrases people send to those above them in the corporate hierarchy versus those at the same level or lower. We find that certain words and phrases are strong predictors. For example, “thought you would” strongly suggests that the recipient outranks the sender, while “let’s discuss” implies the opposite. We also find that the phrases people write to their bosses do not demonstrate cognitive processes as often as the ones they write to others. We conclude this paper by interpreting our results and announcing the release of the predictive phrases as a public dataset, perhaps enabling a new class of status-aware applications.

Here are examples of emails:

Email 1:

Please take a look at these spreadsheets and calc the gas usage by plant and by pipe in CA. Mike is telling us that most of these palnts [sic] will be shutting down in the next few weeks due to credit exposure. Let’s discuss the impact on sendouts. Thanks.

Email 2:

Thank you! The itemization was absolutely no problem, and please let me know when I can do things like that to make your job go more smoothly. I know the market got chaotic late yesterday . . . So I thought I’d ask in the future, is it you I should come to, or real-time? Thanks again for your help.

Who is the boss? And who is the subordinate?

You know,  I frequently use phrases like “though you would”–like this, be interested, etc. when I email someone above me. Fascinating. I will now make a conscious effort not to use those phrases that tip off my inferior station.

Freakonomics has the top 5 upward/downward predictors:

The usage of “weekend” in a work email, for example, is likely to be sent to a superior. This is also true for the words “attach,” “that night,” “tiger” and “shit.”  Here are the top five in each group – upward means the recipients of the email outrank the sender, and downward the opposite:

Top 5 Upward Predictors

  • the ability to
  • I took
  • are available
  • kitchen
  • thought you would

Top 5 Downward Predictors

  • have you been
  • you gave
  • we are in
  • title
  • need in