Email Etiquette: The Unwritten Rules We Follow

Topic(s): culture
Publication: Administrative Science Quarterly (2012)
Article: Appeasing Equals: Lateral Deference in Organizational Communication
Authors: A.R. Fragale, J.J. Sumanth, L.Z. Tiedens, G.B. Northcraft
Reviewed by: Susan Rosengarten

Lets face it. We’re all addicted to checking our email. How many of us can go more than an hour or two without succumbing to the suspicion that we’ve received some highly critical, time-sensitive message in our inbox that requires our immediate attention? Writing emails has become so routine for many of us that sometimes it seems like our fingers automatically start typing before our brain gets a chance to catch up and tell us what to write.


A recent study (Fragale et al., 2012) found that our thought processes in composing and responding to emails are a bit more complicated than meets the eye. One might think it intuitive that employees would use deferential language in their correspondence to those above them in their companies’ organizational hierarchies. We want to appease our superiors and show them that we recognize our place below them within our companies’ social structure. Surprisingly enough though, the authors found that deferential email language is most often used in communication “among equals,” or between peers of equal or similar rank within their organization. They also found that patterns of deferential language were moderated by individuals’ concern for their status positions.


Rank indicators like job titles and physical workspaces serve to clarify organizational roles and elucidate the power relationship between superiors and their subordinates. Deferential communication becomes especially important among peers of the same rank, who are most likely to see each other as a threat to their advancement within the organization and are more sensitive to perceived cues of status competition.


Fragale, A. R., Sumanth J. J., Tiedens, L. Z., & and Northcraft G. B. (2012). Appeasing Equals: Lateral Deference in Organizational Communication. Administrative Science Quarterly, 57(3) 373-406.