When you use the words "weekend," "voicemail," "driving," "okay" or a four-letter word that rhymes with "hit" in your work e-mails, chances are you're sending that message to your boss--or even higher up the org chart.
There are certain words and phrases we use in work e-mails that are actually reliable indicators of whether that correspondence is going to someone higher or lower in the corporate hierarchy, according to a study by Georgia Tech researchers.
Led by Eric Gilbert, an assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing, the team evaluated the wording of a half-million corporate e-mail messages sent and received by 150 former Enron employees. Called the "Enron Corpus," this is the largest e-mail dataset available for public study. The team evaluated the e-mails sent on or before May 1, 2001--several months before a formal investigation of Enron began and before its executives started selling off their own Enron stock. In other words, they chose a time when Enron was functioning very much like any other company.
After an exhaustive analysis, Gilbert was able to identify the top 100 words that reliably predicted whether e-mails traveled up or down the corporate ladder.
"Across a wide variety of messages and relationships, these phrases consistently stand out as signaling a power relationship between two people," Gilbert explained. "The probability of it occurring due to chance alone is less than 1 in 1,000."
The top 5 upward predictors:
Other words and phrases of note that are upward predictors include: Europe, a decision, tigers, please change, a discussion, the calendar, excellent, sounds good and February.
- the ability to
- I took
- are available
- thought you would
The top 5 downward predictors:
Other words and phrases of note that are downward predictors include: Funny, I hope you, this week and, problem with, forgot to, can you help, let's talk and please send.
- have you been
- you gave
- we are in
- need in
So what? Gilbert's work could be applied in designing "smarter" e-mail software. Future e-mail clients might be able to differentiate between e-mails sent from superiors or subordinates and then use that information to better address someone's e-mail preferences.
For example, post-5 p.m. messages from people under you might get held for delivery until the next day, while e-mails from the boss--or the boss's assistant--could go right through.
"We have organizational charts, but they don't tell the whole story," said Gilbert, adding that the research could help map "informal power and reporting structures" in an organization. "A classic example is the CEO's administrative assistant: That person may not occupy a high box on the org chart, but he or she still has a large amount of influence."
--From the Editors at Netscape