Do male and female writers email differently?

For introverts like me, one of the great things about email is its asynchronicity. Because I like to think before I speak, in-person conversations can make me feel rushed and scatter my thinking. Email, however, allows me to frame my thoughts carefully and express them deliberately. I feel much more in control of the image I’m putting across, and given that I’m also a bit of a control freak, that’s another point in email’s favor.

In some ways, email creates a sense of an invisible shield. Our readers can’t see the grimaces or grins we go through as we struggle to find just the right words; they see only the end product, without being able to scrutinize the process. But one thing that may show up in your messages, without your being aware of it, is an indication of gender identity. Without your knowledge, your email writing could be sending certain “gender signals.” Depending on your own sense of gender identity and the particular situation, you may or may not want to highlight those linguistic markers in your messages.

What I’m calling “gender signals” could include your choice of topic, syntax (sentence structure), word choices, and punctuation. Certain writing habits, tend to be associated with the male gender and other habits with the female gender. For instance, compared with male writers, writers who identify as female may tend to use more:

  • Hedging language, such as “kind of” or “somewhat”

  • Indirect questions or commands instead of direct requests

  • Tentative expressions of opinion, such as “It may just be me, but…”

  • Expressions of politeness

  • Exclamation markers and other “markers of excitability”

  • Parenthetical digressions

  • Sentences starting with “I believe that…” [1]

While not all researchers would agree on this list, studies dating back to the 1970s suggest that there is such a phenomenon as feminized writing, and that its characteristics are generally perceived as making it weaker than male writing.

A 2002 study [2] showed the evidence of gender signals hard numbers. Scores for linguistic markers of intimacy were significantly higher for female writers than for male writers:

These particular results underscore what socio-linguistics researcher Deborah Tannen discovered way back in the 1990s. [3] Her research pointed up a key difference between the way men and women use language. Men, she found, tend to use language in factual ways, to relay information and solve problems. Tannen calls this behavioral pattern “report talk.” Women, on the other hand, often use language to do more than just state facts. They use it to express emotion, especially empathy, and build relationships. Female discourse, says Tannen, constitutes “rapport talk.”

In the business world, report-talk is often considered more efficient, serious, and smart than rapport-talk, which is easily dismissed as mere womanish chatter. But when it comes to email, rapport-talk can play the valuable (sometimes primary) role of nurturing and maintaining relationships. Whatever your gender identity, it’s worth considering how your email writing exploits gender-identified features to influence your target audience.

Take a minute to reflect on the last few emails you’ve written. How does your gender identity offline affect the way you present yourself online?

  • If you identify as male, does your email writing include enough warmth and relationship-building content to build trust and maintain positive relationships? Are you doing enough to cultivate rapport?

  • If you identify as female, does your email writing in any way undercut your authority or encourage readers to take you less seriously than they should? Do you need to use stronger “report-talk” to gain your readers’ attention and trust?

Neither male nor female gender signals make an email better or worse. Specific gender-identified features will play out more or less favorably in different situations. The great thing about email is that it enables you to determine the persona that shows up in your recipient’s inbox. Depending on your audience’s personality, your pre-existing relationship with them, the topic you’re addressing, and many other factors, you can choose the extent to which you allow your email writing to display qualities typically (or stereotypically) associated with your gender.

As the business world becomes more accepting of a range of gender identities, not just “male” and “female,” it will be interesting to see how our notions of gender-in-writing evolve. I often find myself repeating the phrase “language is never neutral,” but perhaps gender markers in language will one day seem as old-fashioned as the male and female stick figures we used to see on restroom doors.

Need help defining and strengthening your personal writing style? Contact me for a free audit of an email or other document.


[1] Winn, L., & Rubin, R. (2001). Enacting gender identity in written discourse: Responding to bidding in personal ads. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 20 (4), 393-418.

[2} Colley, A., & Todd, Z. (2002). Gender-linked differences in the style and content of e-mails to friends. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 21 (4), 386.

[3] Tannen, D. (1994). Talking from Nine to Five: Women and Men at Work. William Morrow.


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