Why can't the executives at my job spell?
December 6, 2005 3:37 PM   Subscribe

I've just now received one of countless pieces of gibberish email from an executive at work. Why is it that the more money someone makes, the less able they are to write even a semi-coherent message?

This isn't necessarily a rhetorical question -- I even seem to recall reading an article in the past couple of years that discusses this phenomenon. Across the board at my job, most of the emails I receive are perfectly literate; sure, there are a few typos here and there, and of course some people are just clearer than others, but overall people seem generally capable of writing clear sentences in something resembling English.

When it comes to upper-upper-management/executives, though, most messages look like they've been written by some 13-year-old typing a text message with her elbows. Messages such as the one I just received, which reads (and I quote): "cni hv ltimg fo vrohcrNOE plst/x" After 10 minutes and 3 phone calls, this was determined to translate as "can I have the list of images for the brochure now, please? Thanks." (Of course, I then got upbraided for not responding to the request immediately -- even though the original message might as well have been written in Mongol for all the sense it makes.)

I've consistently noticed this phenomenon for several years, and I've noticed it among several different muckety-mucks (male and female alike). Other people who work at my job of similar ages (50+) all seem capable of writing perfectly understandable email messages (thus it doesn't seem to be a generational thing), so why can't most of the executives? Is there really something about earning mid-six figures that makes people figure "fuck it; I'm so damn important, it's up to all the peons to figure out how to read my emails"?
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'll second the "fuck it; I'm so damned important."

To be fair, a lot of the perpetrators feel that they have very little time so they don't spend the extra time to proof or to actually type correctly in the first place.

Also, these people are typically older - in addition to not being a "native" typer, I've known lots of older execs who are still under the mindset that typing/writing something is beneath them and that such things are their secretary's jobs.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 3:46 PM on December 6, 2005

Was it sent from a Blackberry or similar device? Or maybe said person has been using one far too much?
posted by trevyn at 3:46 PM on December 6, 2005

It was obviously typed by a touch typist, A hunt'n'pecker wouldn't mistake E for W and V for B, although I suppose it could be from a thumb-based QWERTY blackberry keyboard.

My theory is these people are just rushing rushing rushing or they just don't give a fuck. It is pretty weird, though.

(By the way, I hope you didn't forward that to any one who might google for it someday, and discover your opinion about the higher-ups. Probably won't happen, but still)
posted by delmoi at 3:53 PM on December 6, 2005

When people are of higher social standing they feel the need to conform less and are more comfortable breaking social norms. I would gather to guess this is a more scholarly approach to PurplePorpoise's "I'm important I can send my messages on lollipops if I want", only I don't believe it's a necessarily conscious undertaking.
posted by geoff. at 3:54 PM on December 6, 2005

while this question strikes me as more of a rant/gripe than something legitimately seeking an answer, i have noticed this phenomenon as well.

i've always chalked it up to the likelihood that those who end up in high-ranking positions often get there because they are charismatic in person, which implies a specialization in verbal communication which atrophies their written communication skills.

alternatively, being a big muckety-muck takes a certain degree of big-picture mindthink; when doing this for a living it's easy to let the details slide. that, and that they're often very busy people and don't have the time to proofread what they've written, unless it's an important document.

this is all just speculation from a peon, though.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 3:54 PM on December 6, 2005

Maybe years of having a secretary available (the same years in which email has become ubiquitous) has atrophied their writing skills?
posted by mmoncur at 4:11 PM on December 6, 2005

i have a theory that many people who attain high levels of management are there because actual work bores them and they have the looks and charisma to keep moving into higher and higher meta-levels where they are basically being paid to be sharper and brighter versions of themselves, with no tangible output.

they think we're slaves, we think they're whores. or something like that. it's a pretty clear division. only peons worry about the specifics of things, which include how to quickly craft a legible email.
posted by macinchik at 4:11 PM on December 6, 2005

I've heard (on mefi) that executives "just do not want to worry about proper sentence construction"
posted by mediaddict at 4:14 PM on December 6, 2005

For the one you quoted, I like the blackberry theory.

In my experience, most emails from executives aren't dumber than average. They are, however, much shorter than average.
posted by I Love Tacos at 4:15 PM on December 6, 2005

Going along with the "they're charismatic in person" theory, they may not interact with their peers and superiors via email much, so no one who might be in a position to actually criticize them ever sees their writing skills.
posted by clarahamster at 4:22 PM on December 6, 2005

i've always chalked it up to the likelihood that those who end up in high-ranking positions often get there because they are charismatic in person, which implies a specialization in verbal communication which atrophies their written communication skills.

This is spot on. The advent of e-mail and word processing has caused an insourcing of many types of secretarial work, and also reduces the likelihood that correspondence will be reviewed by someone with competence in syntax and grammar. Ten years ago anon's boss would have had his secretary communicate the request; the elimination of the middleman has also eliminated the human barrier that would prevent nonsense like that e-mail from getting outside of the boss's brain.

I frequently get e-mails from fellow law students full of IM-speak such as "u" and "ur"; while everyone has good sense not to do that in a legal brief, the quality of informal communication can be just as important.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 4:23 PM on December 6, 2005

I second Saucy's comments. I also think that the quality of secretaries is dropping, because intelligent and capable women are pursuing other careers. So, even if a secretary does proofread the email, it's unlikely that they have the writing/editing skills to catch many common mistakes. That being said, there are, of course, exceptions.
posted by acoutu at 4:40 PM on December 6, 2005

I propose we call them hunt'n'peckerheads.

Actually, every good manager, at any level of companies I've worked for in English-speaking countries, has had a masterful command of the language (if it was their first), all the way up to chief executives with whom I've worked on special projects when I was in Australia.

There have been some I've encountered whose first language was English, and who mangled it. They were almost invariably of the familiar type -- incompetents promoted upwards.

On the other hand, one of my better friends, an enormously successful young man who now runs his own company in Australia, refuses, when possible, to write much to others, because (I believe) he is aware that his written skills are clumsy. He does most of his interaction verbally, or has other people polish his writing if necessary. He's one hell of a good manager.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:42 PM on December 6, 2005

Definitely a "fuck it." I do this kind of thing myself sometimes - write an order in medical Latin or something - precisely to remind nurses and pharmacists who think to upbraid me exactly who has the M.D. degree and who is paid to take orders from the person with the M.D. degree.

Over the years I have found that these little informal reminders are important. When everyone in a hierarchical structure expects the structure to be respected, and then someone lower down on the hierarchy starts operating without oversight, fuck-ups happen. Worst is when a nurse or pharmacist comes to believe, after years of associating politely with physicians, that their experience and ability is equal to that of the physician. Casual fuck-ups committed by these folks kill patients - my patients - and in some cases I'm even fully liable for their malfeasance.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:44 PM on December 6, 2005 [3 favorites]

My Dad was an executive and sent his own emails as rarely as possible. Now he's retired and the email I get from him is sometimes so short that it fits in the subject line "you home?" or it doesn't make sense "you hame?" (which I only know now from context). I've asked him directly why he doesn't make more of an effort and I think the question truly baffles him. Email to him is a means to an end and if I can do the work necessary to figure out what the hell he was talking about, then the system works, according to him. That and he's got lousy vision and I think he's embarassed to mention that he can't see the screen well enough to proofread well.
posted by jessamyn at 4:47 PM on December 6, 2005

Maybe there's a selection pressure that effectively removes those who can communicate from the executive pool. That is, if you are an idiot but can communicate your idiocy effectively, you're not going to last as long as the idiots who can't.
posted by logicpunk at 5:00 PM on December 6, 2005

They're egocentric jerks who think they're too important to need to communicate clearly. They expect you to read their shallow, ambition-crazed little minds.

I just ignore emails like the one you received, and should the arsehole responsible be foolish enough to chase me up I just say something like, "Oh, I'm sorry, it was written in such lamentably ignorant English I assumed it came from a Nigerian spammer." This doesn't change their behaviour but it sure as hell gives me a laugh. Oh yeah - it helps that I'm too old to care about what sort of appraisal I get and too comfortably off to care about getting sacked. This is not as nice a situation as being wealthy enough not to need to work at all but by crackey, it's a close second.
posted by Decani at 6:37 PM on December 6, 2005

Over the years I have found that these little informal reminders are important. When everyone in a hierarchical structure expects the structure to be respected, and then someone lower down on the hierarchy starts operating without oversight, fuck-ups happen.

I can potentially see that in a medical seting*, ikkyu2, but in a business setting like this one, there's no potentially life-and-death reason to use unclear communication to reinforce hierarchy and authority. I mean, when it takes ten minutes and several phone calls to decipher a simple command that boils down, in this case, to "send me a document," it does nothing except waste people's time. In my experience (I've received my share of Greek-to-me emails from managers over the years in several different workplaces too), that doesn't breed respect for the superior in question; if anything, it breeds disrespect because they come off as idiots and/or assholes who will waste people's time and then blame someone else for the ensuing confusion or lack of productivity.

*to play devil's advocate for a minute though -- and because I'm genuinely interested in your experience as a doctor -- isn't there also a risk you take with deliberately using unclear language or writing in a medical setting? That is, what if someone misreads your (puprosely unclear) order, and instead of checking with you to confirm, they sincerely believed they've deciphered it correctly? Couldn't that also potentially lead to a fuck-up that could kill a patient?
posted by scody at 6:40 PM on December 6, 2005

My prof is a bit like this, though orders of magnitude better than your example. My take on it is that he simply decided at some point to use every time-saving measure available to him; punctuation was one of the first casualties. My guess is he's a little more careful with spelling when he's writing to a colleague rather than to a student, and I'd guess the same is true of your exec.
posted by louigi at 6:45 PM on December 6, 2005

That should read orthography, not spelling, though I really meant both.
posted by louigi at 6:46 PM on December 6, 2005

While I agree that many of these are part of it, the problem isn't limited to the elite or assholish or technically-challenged. In business school, I was shocked see the low literacy among many classmates. Very smart, very motivated, very experienced people (who were in, hello, graduate school--so supposedly not lacking for education either), who not only had very limited grasp of grammar/spelling/punctuation but also were severely limited in other important communication skills such as expressing their thoughts in an organized fashion or putting forth a cogent argument. Oh, and don't even get me started on how desperately certain people needed a People Skills 101 class. Everyone graduated with a great deal more knowledge of statisics, economic theory, inventory management, and accounting, but left with the the same communication skills they came with.

Calculate back multiple generations of b-schools churning out MBAs like that, and it's not surprising what you get: execs who don't care about communicating well, because no one has ever made it a prerequisite for their advancement.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 6:52 PM on December 6, 2005

"fuck it; I'm so damn important, it's up to all the peons to figure out how to read my emails"

Also, I believe that should be "fck ti, imsoda mintorpnt is up toal thpenos t fgrue othow tred m#emial."
posted by scody at 6:57 PM on December 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

Stop overanalysing. It was sent from a blackberry while he was driving. Happens all the time.
posted by blag at 7:38 PM on December 6, 2005

scody: Unfortunately, your example must be of a middle-management type -- it is clearly decipherable, and bears at least some resemblance to actual English.

"cni hv ltimg fo vrohcrNOE plst/x" still looks like Russian to me.
posted by coriolisdave at 7:38 PM on December 6, 2005

ikkyu2 !!

I respected you based on your sharing of knowledge, here on Mefi, but you just made me realize that my supervisor (an MD playing at being a scientist) does exactly the same thing and that I deeply resent that kind of behavior.

I make the effort to be clear in my communications and to carry out his perogatives as closely as I can to his intentions while still making the effort to respectfully communicate to him his errors, misjudgements, misperceptions, and oversights in addition to alternate approaches.

Saying please and thank you and giving out BS gifts over Christmas won't alleviate the potential resentment "your" nurses and pharmacists may hold against you. They are not your tools; they are your coworkers and you depend on them day in and day out - they're professionals so they would sooner let you fuck up and not correct you because they don't understand your communications than to be so full of themselves that they would think to act beyond their positions without consulting someone else.

I'm going to regret typing this, but fuck the high horse your sense of self importance rides on.

posted by PurplePorpoise at 7:41 PM on December 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

I work for attorneys, and have found the older the attorney, the less they know how to type. Up until 10-15 years ago, law school grads rarely used computers; attorneys were used to hand-writing or (more often) dictating their output and proofing the results sent back to them from the secretary or word processing department.

I still remember the older (late-60ish) attorney who crowed with triumph when he sent his first email, about five years ago. He'd read plenty, but had never typed one himself. For the most part, attorneys and upper management types of the previous generations never learned to type, much less use a spellchecker, so they rarely become competent keyboardists.
posted by lhauser at 7:46 PM on December 6, 2005

maybe this is one of those experiments to see if monkeys can run companies from space.

P.S. trmba mtk+ 4 trns8 ceopsk
posted by nomad at 8:08 PM on December 6, 2005

Stop overanalysing. It was sent from a blackberry while he was driving. Happens all the time.

Maybe in some cases, but frequently when I've gotten them, I know for a fact that the person is currently in the office and is using their computer. I've also noticed this happening for at least 8 or 9 years at other jobs I've had, so it's got to pre-date Blackberry.

Best/worst story ever: I worked for a company in the mid/late-90s owned by a guy (in)famous for both his temper and his garbled messages. According to a friend of mine at the company who was in a position to know such things, this CEO once sent a tantrum/message while on vacation to some HR lackey ordering some mid-level guy be fired; the message was so unclear (and the lackey so intimidated to ask for a clarification) that the mid-level guy continued working there until the CEO came back from vacation -- at which point both the mid-level guy and the HR lackey got fired.
posted by scody at 8:44 PM on December 6, 2005

that reminds me ...
posted by fourstar at 8:54 PM on December 6, 2005

cni hv ltimg fo vrohcrNOE plst/x

Dude, this string and the fact that this is a pattern of behavior honestly looks like dyslexia or PDDNOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified).

Don't count out a garden-variety learning disorder, which would NOT prevent said executive from being good at their job (dyslexics are often quite verbally skilled), but WOULD make written communication difficult for both parties.

Suggestion: Catch a fly with honey. Make a joke about it. "Wow, I'm sorry I really didn't understand that last email. I was trying to figure out if NOE meant something I didn't understand."

If the boss is at all human, he may respond somewhat sheepishly. "Yeah, I get that way sometimes." Happened to me and an old boss sometimes. Once he figured out I wasn't going to ridicule him about it, he tried harder.

Problem solved, crisis averted, world saved.
posted by frogan at 9:27 PM on December 6, 2005

In my experience, people that are really important (well, relatively) like upper management of a large multinational, don't act this way. It are mostly people who manage very few people (like, indeed, lawyers and doctors) who do not know of other ways to show their authority, and who need those things to feel important.

I actually left a company where all the secretaries were treated like this. I do not want to work at a place were people treat other people this way.
posted by davar at 3:27 AM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

"cni hv ltimg fo vrohcrNOE plst/x"

If this e-mail arrive in my inbox, I would have honestly thought that someone accidentally mashed their keyboard and sent a bunch of gibberish for no reason. It would not have occured to me to try and get meaning out of it, because it doesn't remotely resemble english. I don't expect e-mails to be perfect, but I would have deleted this one because I wouldn't have a clue that I was supposed to be able to read it.

Can you approach the executive in question and say something like:
I'm really sorry that it took me so long to respond to that request you e-mailed me. I had trouble making sense of it because you used so many abbreviations that I couldn't read it. I want to be able to respond quickly to your requests, but it would help me a lot if you could put in just a bit less shorthand, then I would be able to get what you need much more efficiently, and it would be better for both of us.
Yes, it's sticking your neck out a little bit. But it's for the betterment of the company. It's not just about making it easier for you, it's about making communication clear so that the comanies resources are used well.
posted by raedyn at 8:19 AM on December 7, 2005

I deeply resent that kind of behavior.

Maybe you'd better find a job where you're the boss, then. When you do, you'll be able to move up to a whole new sphere of things to resent.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:24 AM on December 7, 2005

I get a lot of "subject line questions" (with no letter text) from people I work for; usually chock full of misspellings and mistakes. As well, I spend a great deal of my time editing and correcting similar mistakes by the same people in our database. I've definitely noticed a certain sloppiness to all correspondence over the last decade. I think it has more to do with the change from writing everything by hand to typing almost everything using computers and keyboards. It feels less personal to type than it does to write; so we care less.

On a related note; I have horrible handwriting, so I type everything I can, or use block letters when forced to write by hand. It still looks like hieroglyphics. Meh.
posted by weirdoactor at 10:19 AM on December 7, 2005

My expectation at the beginning of your question was that your boss skipped punctuation and misspelled things in email, but then I was baffled by the actual example, which from where I sit was not careless or poorly educated, but just complete gibberish. But on reflection, especially after seeing some of the comments in the thread (i.e., that other people consider this annoying or cocky but not totally mad), I have to say it seems more like 13 yr old IM-speak is only associated with 13 yr old IM users because the rest of us are used to regular english, but that that may well change. People use whatever system works, and if 13 yr olds can make sense of each other using such a system, it seems likely that the college educated could as well, if they wished to. If it is fairly standardized - if the same abbreviations are regularly used & understood - then it is in a sense a kind of Newspeak. Simple concepts and instructions can be communicated via less words. I work in a very communication-oriented field (grad school / adjunct teacher) so I don't find this appealing, but I don't know that we can call it indicative of illiteracy.

as for how standard the actual message is -
"cni hv ltimg fo vrohcrNOE plst/x"
"can I have the list of images for the brochure now, please? Thanks."
to me "plst/x" seems standard-esque, and "cn" and "hv" seem likely. "img" is standard. "lt" seems questionable, "fo" seems useless, and "vrohcrNOE" makes no sense to me; it would make sense if that is somehow a shortening for the name of a project, though. If it is the name of a project, then the whole sentence could be legit code for the request, and the issue is that everyone has to learn the code, so to speak. We all learn english, but to me this seems less like a mangling of english as an 'english based code' you have to learn in that work environment.
posted by mdn at 10:47 AM on December 7, 2005

I think a lot of C-level executives have this deep personal belief that they are constantly strapped for time, and always busy. Under that mindset, taking time to correct spelling in email or write in full sentences just takes a back seat.

In reality I think a lot of them are probably genuinely busy, at least some of the time, but more than that they have this personal belief that they are busy. So you start seeing these people with 12 cell phones and 3 PDAs strapped to their belt because actually sitting down at a PC would drain their vital free-time. Or they send these awful leetspeek-style scribblings to their underlings because hell that would take an extra 10 seconds to correct and "I'm so goddamn busy".
posted by Rhomboid at 11:01 AM on December 7, 2005

I've noticed an increasing number of people over the years who appear to have competent, even excellent communications skills ... until they have to actually write something. Then it's a total mess. They can speak in complete sentences, but they can neither write them nor spell the words that make them up.

I've also noticed another category of person, who writes utter nonsense: The words are often spelled correctly, the sentences are grammatically correct, but there is just no sense to what they have written. I noticed that with a lot of my fellow students when I went back to school in the early '90s, and I've seen it in undergrad papers I've been shown recently. What intriquing to me about these efforts is that you often find the printed work revealing that their spoken language was deficient: They misuse metaphors, and use homonymic phrasings that would be missed when spoken. In short, they're just regurgitating things they've heard, not even things they've read.

ikkyu2, I understand the logic of your position, but has it ever occurred to you that it might be better to actually try to communicate with your "underlings", rather than playing supercilious little mind-games? Might that not be a better strategy for patient safety?
posted by lodurr at 12:46 PM on December 7, 2005

Er, I mean: MeTa, CMichaelCook, MeTa.

maybe I should have typed that in medical latin...
posted by lodurr at 12:59 PM on December 7, 2005

Why would anyone respond to "cni hv ltimg fo vrohcrNOE plst/x" with anything but an email straight back saying "I'm sorry, your message came through garbled as above, please resend?" That's not executive poor spelling (which I concur, seems endemic to upper echelons), that's just.... gibberish. Less exterme cases, I think, are a combination of people who have others typing for them often enough to lack practice and busy schedules that tend to revolve more around shallow interaction on many tasks rather than in-depth work on just a few tasks.

lodurr, there's no point in trying to have a discussion with ikkyu2 about this - doctors like that exist to reinforce the extreme stereotype and will never for a moment consider the possibility that RN and technician hostility is a result of their personality, not their position. There's a few in every facility, kinda like urine in the mint bowl at the hostess station - it's just a fact of life.
posted by phearlez at 1:02 PM on December 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

Why would anyone respond to "cni hv ltimg fo vrohcrNOE plst/x" with anything but an email straight back saying "I'm sorry, your message came through garbled as above, please resend?"

Agreed. I would think most executives would be little embarrassed by seeing that come back. Bad typing is one thing, but that looks more like random letters.
posted by caddis at 1:21 PM on December 7, 2005

- speaking of bad typing, I appear to have dropped this: "a"
posted by caddis at 1:35 PM on December 7, 2005

It goes equally for reading messages. I'm frequently baffled when I send a very detailed message, with bulleted points and numbered steps, and I get a "Lets talk about it" in response...
posted by Chuckles at 1:56 PM on December 7, 2005

Heh, I don't think that was very clear... Oh well...
posted by Chuckles at 1:58 PM on December 7, 2005

Chuckles, I know exactly what you're talking about.
It's best to give a very brief summary in the body of an e-mail, and attach a word doc in which you provide the detail. That gives them something to print out, edit, forward, or hang on to at their option.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 2:07 PM on December 7, 2005

That is very interesting Saucy Intruder, I have to admit I wouldn't normally consider that. Mostly because if I had to go through all those steps I'd have to strangle someone. It does seem to fit in with the mind set though.

I remember that one of my Profs, who was very managerial, would put all his comments in word's revision tracking system... Appropriate for some things, but ridiculous for others.

Now I'm thinking "what, a word document, shouldn't that be a pdf"... Must stab brain with Qtip...
posted by Chuckles at 2:37 PM on December 7, 2005

With due respect, PurplePorpoise, working in a lab is nothing like working in a hospital, and the relationship between PIs and grad students is nothing like the relationship between physicians and nurses or pharmacists -- the proper analogy may be attending physicians and resident physicians, but even then the degree of responsibility and the risks involved are nothing alike.

For example (one of many), I remember quite vividly the night I was working on the oncology service as a resident and there was an experienced nurse who was new to the floor. A patient who happened to have no white blood cells spiked a mild fever, which prompted me to write what I thought was a fairly explicit stat order for cultures and broad-spectrum antibiotics. The nurse made note of it, checked in on the patient who looked fine, and simply decided to put the order on her todo list below hanging some platelets for someone else. The nurse, despite working in the hospital for a decade, had limited experience with neutropenic fever and treated it like any other fever. I left briefly to check in on another rather sick patient, and by the time I got back (maybe 15 minutes), my patient was in septic shock, required transfer to the ICU, and nearly died. Even what seems like a most minor indiscretion by a nurse can lead to a nightmarish outcome. Which is precisely why there is a rigorous hierarchy in place. That said, my response to this sort of thing isn't writing cryptic orders, but instead writing extremely explicit orders which I communicate in multiple ways. I try to be pleasant and do have much respect for good nurses, but frankly, I'm sure people often find me condescending and patronizing. And I could care less. I know it's hard to accept, but as a doctor, sometimes getting things done right and making sure nobody dies means you have to be a dick.

posted by drpynchon at 3:10 PM on December 7, 2005

"kinda like urine in the mint bowl at the hostess station"

posted by Mid at 3:25 PM on December 7, 2005

Mid: !!!
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:51 AM on December 8, 2005

cni hv ltimg fo vrohcrNOE plst/x = plausible deniability?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:08 AM on December 8, 2005

By the way, if anyone is still in doubt about how much of a smug cunt ikkyu2 is, check this comment from another recent AskMe thread.

I'm giving you permission here to ignore those morons.


Mmm. Please let me becojme a submissive puppy so that I might suck ikkyu2's smeg-encrusted dode.

Matt! Please delete this comment and give me a week's timeout! I have transgressed the mighty AskMe guidelines! I must be punished!
posted by Decani at 7:30 PM on December 15, 2005 [1 favorite]

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