But His Emails…

I spend more time than I’d like fretting about email etiquette. Should I start messages with “Hi” or is that too informal? Is “To whom it may concern” stodgy and antiquated or is it perfectly fine when I don’t know the name of the addressee? And how do etiquette choices like these relate to the actual content of the messages I send?

To try to answer these questions, I dug into the 479 messages I’ve sent through my Graduate Center email account since August 2017. And if the unwritten rules of email are anywhere near as anxiety-stoking for you as they are for me, you may find some value in the results.


Overview of the visualization

It turns out I rely most heavily on “Hi” to start messages, but I nearly as often just jump right into the message with no greeting. To end messages, I tend to use no sign-off—though if I do use one, it’s likely to be “Best”. This result is consistent with my own subjective experience of my greeting and sign-off choices, as I made a deliberate choice within the last year or so to eschew email formalities whenever possible, like if I’m replying to a reply (Do I really have to keep sending you my regards?) or if I’m communicating with a friend or close colleague.

One interesting trend I found is that messages with more formal greetings and sign-offs, like “Dear” and “Sincerely”, tended to be longer. I suppose the more formal the context for the message, the more lengthy and important the content.

For the second page of the visualization, I was interested in how the emotional content of the messages related to the trends in greetings, sign-offs, and length. I used a text analytics program to categorize the body of each message as very positive, positive, neutral, and negative (There were so few messages categorized as very negative that I lumped them in with negative). It wasn’t surprising to me that most of my messages were positive—I tend to adopt an eager-to-please “email voice” that, by default, involves lots of “Great!” and “Thank you!” and “Looking forward to it!” It was interesting to see, however, that the greeting with the greatest percentage of positive messages was “To whom it may concern”. It seems I’m most eager to please when I don’t even know who’s receiving the pleasure.

Design choices

I thought tree maps were the best option for showing the relative frequency of each greeting, sign-off, and sentiment. For average message length by greeting and sign-off, I used simple bar charts for comparison. For message length and sentiment, however, I made a bar-scatter plot, on Dr. McSweeney’s recommendation. I think it does a good job of showing the distribution of data in each category. To show the change in trends over time, I thought line charts would be best. And finally, to show the proportion of sentiments associated with each greeting and sign-off, I used stacked bar charts with the colors the represent each of the sentiments.

Next steps

There were many exciting questions that came up as I worked on this project that I didn’t get around to including. One that Dr. McSweeney suggested was how my relationships to the people I’m communicating with factor into the trends I’ve found. Is my communication style different for peers than for superiors or subordinates? I couldn’t think of an efficient and effective way to codify these relationships in time for the deadline but I may revisit this. I’d also like to compare everything I’ve found in this analysis, which was exclusive to my Graduate Center email, to my personal email account, which has a much larger and richer amount of data.