Email Etiquette: When Being Impolite at Work Pays

When one writer dismissed with the niceties in emails to colleagues, her work life improved.

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For years, I tried to be a very nice person at work—a dream colleague, a team player, the sort of woman who gave women a good name in the workplace. I thanked people. I apologized. I expressed concern. I took responsibility for making things right, even when I wasn’t the one who had made them go wrong.

Then one day I looked up from my under-challenging, midlevel job and noticed that my boss, who was generally regarded as kind of a jerk, but a smart and talented one, never, ever thanked people. He never apologized. And he didn’t appear to give a rip about what was going on in the lives of anyone around him. He never took responsibility when things went wrong, preferring instead to label someone else the culprit and chew them out.

It suddenly occurred to me: he had gained responsibility, power and a big, cushy salary not despite the fact that he was a jerk, but because of it. Maybe no one liked him, but everyone respected him. Whereas I, arguably no less competent, but assuredly a whole lot more pleasant and agreeable, was drifting along in a rudderless career—pal to all, boss to none.

I’m not alone in my thinking: A recent study examining the relationship between agreeableness, income and gender, published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that the workplace does tend to reward disagreeable behavior. Disagreeable men tend to earn more than agreeable men, and disagreeable women, though they earn less than both nice and not-nice guys, earn more than agreeable women, researchers found.

The study, entitled “Do Nice Guys—and Gals—Really Finish Last?” (conducted by Timothy A. Judge of the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, Beth A. Livingston of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and Charlice Hurst of University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business) provided an analysis of the data from three separate surveys conducted over the past two decades including responses from thousands of workers of various ages, salary levels, and professions. The authors also conducted a survey of their own, asking 460 business students to weigh in on hypothetical personnel decisions.

“‘Niceness”—in the form of the trait of agreeableness—does not appear to pay,” the authors concluded.

Although I could never pull off my boss’s level of rudeness (nor would I have wanted to), I nevertheless decided to shed just a bit of my workaday warmth by making two seemingly small changes: to stop saying “thank you” or “I’m sorry.” Straightaway. Cold turkey. Just to see what would happen.

I started with email, where I had often signed off with a chipper “thanks!” or apologized for inconveniencing someone with a request or for taking a while to reply. I was no longer sorry it took so long to get back to anyone. Neither did I feel either regretful about asking them to do something or grateful to them in advance for doing it.

I painstakingly reread every message to make sure neither polite phrase had sneaked through. And after I’d carefully excised each self-effacing slip, I hit send with a new set to my jaw, a hard glimmer in my eyes.

The effect was immediate: Colleagues began to treat me with more respect. Celebrity publicists—a notably power-aware lot whom I often contacted in my job—were more responsive. Even interns (those pecking-order experts) seemed to regard me with a new sort of awe.

Emboldened, I sought to eliminate “sorry” and “thank you” from my spoken workplace interactions as well, sometimes literally covering my mouth (passing it off as a “thoughtful” pose) during meetings to keep from uttering them. I found myself smiling less and bargaining harder.

My new confidence gave me the inner wherewithal to launch a freelance business (I’m now my own boss). My career—and my income—lurched upward.

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At first, my new sense of power and its rewards felt thrilling. I learned to bargain firmly and unapologetically and was paid fairly—and it seemed to me that, when people paid more for my work, they tended to value it (and me) more highly, further increasing my own sense of worth. But there were also times I pushed too hard and lost assignments. And I began to worry about my reputation. Had my new self-assurance made me overly demanding? Were people starting to think of me as a diva?

My concerns may have been valid. The recent study also found that the rewards of disagreeableness for women are limited—far more so than for men. What’s more, if women push their disagreeable behavior in the workplace too far, they risk a major backlash.

“People attribute disagreeable—i.e. self-interested, tough, argumentative—behavior in men and women differently,” study coauthor Judge told me. “If a man is disagreeable, he is thought to be tough and leader-like. If a woman is disagreeable, the ‘b-word’ is applied to her.”

I had found myself bumping against these very boundaries: placing a higher value on respect and remuneration than likeability, I had advanced, but I feared I was becoming unlikable. Had I become, as Judge politely put it, a “b-word”?

This past summer, I had a breakthrough. It happened when I wrote an essay that was included in a collection of works by “mommy bloggers.” An email group was formed so that those of us who were involved could introduce ourselves to each other. Every single person, in their initial emails, included a sort of apology (“I’ve never been included in something like this before!”) and an expression of thanks (“I’m so honored”).

Reading through the email chain, I saw these expressions not as displays of powerlessness, but of kindness, openheartedness and candor, a desire for connection and support. We were thankful. We were sorry. We were also in it together. I added my own expressions of modesty and gratitude to the highly agreeable chain, and felt the camaraderie surround me like a warm blanket.

In the intervening months, I’ve sought to find a middle ground. I will now allow the occasional “thank you” to pass, and I will apologize if I feel it is justified, though I still try not to do either reflexively.

That’s the sort of balanced approach Judge, the study coauthor, recommends. “I tell women there is a difference between disagreeing and being disagreeable,” he says. “Be firm, logical, assertive, and persistent—but do not ever show hostility, anger, or other negative emotions.”

We women are held to different standards of agreeability than men, Judge cautions, adding, “This of course is not fair—but fair does not always describe the world in which we live.”

Sorry to break the news. And thanks!