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Recently the creator of Linux resigned after old, abusive email messages he’d written came to light. It’s not the first time that scandals have been launched by email mishaps. Before you click send on that work email, it’s prudent to ask yourself—what does this message say about you?

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The workplace inbox can be a small theater, offering a view into the lives of employees and the real state of workplace relationships. In fact, two researchers from Heriott Watt University wrote about its potential as an anthropological tool in Work, Employment and Society.

The authors point out the ubiquity of email in modern day workplaces; no longer for only formal communication or high-tech companies, email is a central part of how employees at every level plan, joke, encourage, organize and—inevitably—argue. Furthermore, the researchers found that observing behavior firsthand yielded very different results than observing it via email.

For example, two teams, one in the U.K. and one in Singapore, exchanged a series of messages that led to significant frustration on both sides. One team member in Singapore stated, “Working with people from the U.K., we face problem [sic] in communication. They are not following rules and procedures … They often change things without notifying us … I would highlight their shortcomings in two lines but they would come back with 20 lines.” Meanwhile, an employee in the U.K. griped, “Sometimes I wonder how come they cannot understand and we have to explain again and again. In the whole day I will get emails discussing the same thing again and again.”

Yet, the two team leads had glowing reviews of the other. One of the employees involved the exchange mentioned above, reported, “I am happy and feel proud to work with [the organization] as now people like to work for us…I have a good team now … they give us ample support so we can drive things,” while the other said, “I can identify with my (virtual) team because the team identifies with us.”

Of course, email’s strengths as an analytical tool are also its weaknesses. Written exchanges can convey emotion we wouldn’t put into words in an interview, but they can also convey emotion we didn’t mean to at all. We can sound cold when we are simply being factual; we can sound manic if we try to convey friendliness; our email interactions can be complete misses in cultural differences. For example, as the authors point out, in East Asia, it is respectful not to reply to an email from a superior. In the U.K. and the U.S.A., it’s the opposite.

Additionally, when it comes to using email in an anthropological study, there’s the very real ethical issue of asking to review employee email. Its strength as a communication tool partly lies in the freedom people feel in its usage. Therefore, it loses a significant element of that if employees know that their words are subject to scrutiny. It’s worth noting, however, that even without sociologists getting access to our inboxes, the e-trail our messages leave behind can be as damning and explosive as physical material.


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Work, Employment & Society, Vol. 27, No. 5 (October 2013), pp. 880-890
Sage Publications, Ltd.