How email can tell someone about who you really are

The way you communicate through email and social media can reveal certain character and personality traits, according to a new letter from psychologists at the University of Bath in the UK.

Whether it’s the person who sends too much punctuation or the short and sweet one-word response guy, communication is key in the workplace as it can be perceived in many different ways. The open letter, published in the journal Molecular Autism, examined communication styles between autistic and non-autistic people electronically where researchers looked closely between the difference in email style of both groups.

Here’s a snippet of a key finding, per the University of Bath:

The researchers observed fewer social niceties and less preamble in emails from autistic people (e.g. ‘I hope you are well’), yet a stronger and polite observance of formal address, (e.g. ‘Dear Dr…’).

Researchers noted a view of observations in autistic people. They noted a heightened awareness for attention to detail such as a careful eye for grammatical mistakes and dead hyperlinks, while autistic participants were also more self-aware of mistakes they made in emails such as fixing spelling. Autistic people also “communicated in precise, though socially unconventional ways” like giving an exact arrival time for a meeting.

For non-autistic people, corrections were rarely made in emails for spelling mistakes due to fear of appearing rude.

Here’s another passage from the study:

Compared to neurotypical students, they report experiencing considerable difficulties in writing socially relevant electronic communications to their peers and academic staff and often report misinterpreting messages or being misinterpreted by others, which can lead to breakdown of two-way communication. In addition, many autistic students are more unresponsive than non-autistic students, which they report is due to fatigue in filtering through ‘e-mail newsletters’ to identify important e-mail communications. Indeed, much of our time spent in supporting autistic students involves helping them to write and be more responsive to electronic communications and deal with negative consequences (e.g., anxiety) of actual or perceived ‘electronic faux pas’.

Dr. Punit Shah from the Department of Psychology at Bath said it’s an important conversation to look into how we communicate online, especially in the current climate with work shifted remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There is no right or wrong way to email, but there are definitely different email styles and that can be revealing of a whole host of characteristics,” Shah said. “Our work only looked at the differences between non-autistic and autistic people, but this topic has much wider relevance and application. In a world where we are increasingly reliant on email communication, how we communicate online really matters.

“Some people may bash off emails in seconds, with little care for polite preamble, formalities, or spelling. But we must try not to read too much into how something is said and focus more on its function. We should also be more willing to give people ‘the benefit of the doubt’ if they seem rude as we don’t know about their social-communication differences, potentially related to autism, or other contextual factors that might have influenced their electronic communication, for example managing child care while emailing remotely from home.”