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The Surprising Psychology of the Email Hack

... and some steps to start protecting yourself.

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Our emails reflect our identities in a number of surprising ways. What you say, how you say it, and how others interpret it can make even the most businesslike messages highly personal. Further, although everyone knows at some level that email isn't private, you still have the sense that the emails you write will be safe from the prying eyes of people who have no right or reason to be poking into your professional and personal lives.

It's for this reason, perhaps, that we take such outrage when a hacking scandal is discovered. Apart from whatever secrets get released, there's a sense of having one's trust violated at the most basic of levels. You don't really think that the people you write to will expose your thoughts and feelings to others who aren't the intended recipients. You also trust yourself enough to be able to judge wisely what to say in emails and to whom to say it.

For this reason, the public hacking of a public figure’s email becomes a source of intense interest. Most recently, more than 20,000 emails written by Democrats, including national committee (DNC) chair and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, were exposed by WikiLeaks. Their content revealed, among other things, that Schultz and her aides preferred that Hillary Clinton become the party's presidential nominee. In the wake of the leaks, Schultz stepped down from her post as DNC chair.

We all worry that we could suffer a similarly bleak or embarrassing fate if the people we shared our opinions with decided to break that bond. For ordinary citizens, the stakes aren’t as high, but they can still create problems. Maybe you’ve had your identity stolen and your credit card used fraudulently. Perhaps all the friends in your contact list received what seemed like a photo from you that turned out to contain malicious spam or a virus. These actions aren’t aimed at you personally, but they can still feel like a violation of your security.

Other email mischief occurs when a message you thought you were sharing privately gets forwarded to others who were not the intended recipients but who have reason to take umbrage at its content. I’ve written separately about strategies you can take when writing emails to avoid such a scenario. The bottom line is that you shouldn’t say things in an email that you don’t want the wrong people to read. Save anything that could be damaging for face-to-face meetings or phone calls, as there’s no hard evidence that could be used in case of dispute. Read the “send to” line before you hit “send” and use “reply all” only after careful scrutiny of who’s on the list. But even the most conscientious among us can make the occasional slip.

Our identities also reflect our social context. In this sense, emails have evolved in a fascinating social space in which the rules for ordinary civility can easily go by the wayside. No one ever teaches you exactly how to compose proper emails, and because they aren't "formal" communication, they can become a blank slate on which you can impose your own sense of self, and your sense of what your culture deems appropriate.

Right off the bat, a key feature of an email is the way it begins. If email is a form of projective test, the opening line forms the first bit of data: Do you start your email with chit-chat or get right to the point? As it turns out, whatever your personal preference, the way you launch into an email turns out to be highly culturally defined.

Florida Institute of Technology’s Erin Richard teamed up with Korn Ferry’s Michael McFadden (2016) to investigate the notion of "saving face" (literally, your identity) and its role in email communication. In China, the typical businessperson begins on a personal note, such as “I hope this email finds you in good health." The typical American’s first line starts with whatever the request happens to be: "Please send me the file.” According to Richard and McFadden (p. 308), Chinese culture is high on collectivism (vs. individualism) and as such gives more value to “the development of strong and lasting interpersonal relationships by emphasizing indirectness and politeness.” More individualistic cultures, such as ours, emphasize “being direct and concise in their communication.”

By emphasizing relationships, collectivist cultures engage in these indirect strategies in order to maintain the other person’s “face” or “mutual face” (i.e. propping up the other person’s social persona). Based on the concepts of “Face Negotiation Theory,” the authors point out that, by their very nature, requests are “face threatening." You want something from someone else, a desire that puts that person at a power disadvantage. Do you show you care about that person first, or move right to your demands?

In a series of experimental simulations, the research team found support for the premises of Face Negotiation Theory. It was particularly important for Chinese participants to have requests preceded by the “facework” of sharing pleasantries before getting to the point.

This research gets to the heart of the matter in understanding how email relates to identity. When you're hacked or exposed, it's a direct assault on the way you want to be seen by others. It doesn't matter if the exposure came about deliberately or through an innocent, accidental "reply all" or forward: You've been shown to be less than honest, uncharitable, or perhaps angrier than you like to think of yourself.

Even the thought of having to protect yourself against a leak or hack can feel like a violation of your trust in the world and those you deal with. Recognizing how maintaining your “face” has become a part of the process may help you gain an understanding of where those feelings come from. Maybe if we all do a little more “face-saving,” our email life will become that much more fulfilling.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.


Richard, E. M., & McFadden, M. (2016). Saving face: Reactions to cultural norm violations in business request emails. Journal of Business And Psychology, 31(2), 307-321. doi:10.1007/s10869-015-9414-9

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016

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