Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Using the Big 5 to Diagnose Your Email Personality

Identifying your email personality type can improve your online image

A relatively unknown owner of a wood-pellet fuel company is suing Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg for 50% of the mega-company's vast holdings. By analyzing Zuckerberg's emails at the heart of the case, forensic experts were called on to help determine the legitimacy of this claim. These analyses rely on decoding specific linguistic features of the emails (such as whether the word "Internet" was capitalized or not. However, according to Ben Zimmer, the "On Language" columnist for the New York Times, the task is proving to be a major challenge. Unlike handwritten documents, email correspondence doesn't necessarily reflect the personal idiosyncrasies of the author and the decoding process may not provide useable information.

As I read Zimmer's article, it occurred to me that looking for cues to personality might be the better strategy. Without realizing it, people reveal a great deal about themselves in the way they express themselves in these online missives. Of course, there is the occasional "Freudian Slip," that creeps into an email that might take the form of a "reply all" that includes the person who you're criticizing. Overall, though, the Big Five model could provide a far more reliable way to categorize and even diagnose people's online personalities than focusing solely on word use or punctuation.

Before learning how the Big Five personality types can help you present yourself more effectively in your online world, let's make sure you understand what they are. Developed by psychologists Paul Costa and Robert McCrae, they are now widely used in personnel assessment, forensic psychology, psychotherapy, and research on health and behavior. Big Five theory claimed, for many years, that the personality types were unchangeable throughout life, particularly after the age of 30, but Costa and McCrae now acknowledge that changes can occur well into the later years of adulthood. Even so, at any point in time, many of your behaviors can be tracked back to the expression of these basic personality tendencies, or "traits."

Here's a brief recap of the Five Factors. Conveniently, you can remember them because their abbreviations form the word "OCEAN," (or "CANOE"). I'll stick with OCEAN for now.

Openness to Experience:This is the willingness to entertain new ideas, to enjoy exploring fantasies and adventure, and to appreciate the arts.

Conscientiousness: As the term implies, people who are conscientious are punctual, neat, and attentive to detail. They can be counted on to complete what they start.

Extraversion:People high on extraversion are outgoing, sociable, and willing to self-disclose. They're typically happy and optimistic. Conversely, people high on introversion, the opposite end of the scale, prefer to be by themselves, are uncomfortable in social situations, and don't like to reveal much about their inner states.

Agreeableness:Easy-going and immune to the aggravations that come from everyday annoyances, people high in agreeableness are also calm and level-headed. You won't hear much complaining from them.

Neuroticism:This is perhaps the darkest of the Big Five, because people high on Neuroticism are prone to excessive worry, anxiety, and feelings that others don't like them. They are pessmistic, always expecting the worse. They tend to ruminate over their perceived failures and are high in self-doubt.

Charlie Brown may be the ultimate neurotic.

Now that you know what the Big Five are, let's look at how they're reflected in your online interactions in your emails. You're probably not just one type because most people have a combination of the Big Five traits, but to make things clearer, I'll focus on the extreme of each type and for each, provide recommendations for how to manage the problems that your email personality type may cause you.

The open to experience email type: Your emails are whimsical and entertaining. You may end your email with a sign-off that includes a reflective quotation. You don't like using capital letters, but you do like using abbreviations. When someone presents you with a problem, you tend to think outside the box and come up with creative solutions. They may not be feasible, but they can shed a new perspective on the issue allowing the people high in conscientiousness to work out the details. Your emails are short because you don't really feel like spending much time on a particular problem. You may be that person who hits "reply all" instead of just "reply" because you didn't actually take the time to examine the recipients before you pushed "send."

Recommendations: For the most part, being high on openness to experience is a good thing in emails because at least they won't be boring. The only danger is that you might come across as flaky or impulsive. If this diagnosis fits you, my only suggestion would be that you avoid these dangers by waiting a minute or two before you push "send" to double-check your grammar and spelling, making sure you actually read the email thoroughly before replying, and testing out the feasibility of any solutions you've proposed. Also, take care to edit the "to" and "subject" lines By the way, Gmail can be particularly bad because it hides much of an earlier conversation and lumps related emails together. Make sure that one didn't sneak into the conversation that doesn't belong there. Taming your impulsivity is particularly important if you're using mobile technology, which can be unforgiving when it comes to proofreading or giving careful thought to your response.

The conscientious email type: Your emails are thoughtful and purposive. Chances are they are very detailed, possibly running one or two pages with specific suggestions about how to handle each aspect of the problem at hand. Your inbox is virtually empty because you respond as soon as you receive the email, though you do take your time in composing your response. You read and re-read your email, and rarely do you have typos, grammatical errors, or abbreviated words. Your favorite emails involve such topics as writing contracts or the minutes of meetings (or scrupulously reviewing those written by others). You live to revise your organization's bylaws, hammering out each and every detail of a policy, or devise a meticulous timeline for a project. In your personal emails, you enjoy providing details such as travel directions, recipe instructions, or plans for a get-together.

Recommendations: There are many advantages to being a conscientious email type because other people will be grateful that they don't have to take on the work that you are doing (especially if those other people are the open to experience type). However, you may run the risk of not having your emails read because they can get to be too long and detailed. For example, if you bury the time and place of a meeting somewhere on the second screen of the email, people may actually not even see it if they are skimming and therefore you've defeated your purpose. Also, you may cause other people to resent the fact that you're so prompt and they are not. The best way to use conscientiousness to your advantage is to write the email you want to write with all of its gory detail, and then force yourself to edit it down to a reasonable length or level of specificity. You can always stagger your emails so that you don't hit the recipients with all the details at once but give them time to digest the information and then move on to the next piece that needs to be addressed.

The extraverted email type: Your emails start with "Hi!" not "Dear." You may have a permanent signature that says "Cheers!" In fact, your emails most likely have more exclamation (and double exclamation) points than periods. Your personality bounces off the page, and you appear enthusiastic about almost everything and everybody. After meeting someone new, you're the one to initiate the follow-up contact. You may not even wait to meet someone in person but will reach out to people in your network who you'd like to get to know better. You don't mind revealing your inner thoughts and feelings to others, even to those you don't know very well. Your favorite email topics involve party planning or office get-togethers, and you're always ready to suggest a phone call or in-person meeting as an alternative to email communication because you much prefer human contact.

Recommendations: I've written elsewhere about the problems created by the tendency to over-share in emails and other online communications such as Facebook. In fact, the true extravert runs the risk not only of being too self-disclosive in emails but of spending far too much time on social media instead of work. The personal warmth you express in your emails goes a long way toward overcoming the impersonality of online communications. However, you may overpower or frighten off the recipient who may not share your excitement or wish for human contact. If you mix extraversion with openness to experience, you can also appear as if you are not a serious person; a jokester who can't be relied on the do the heavy lifting in a project. Your emails may be seen as frivolous and you won't be considered a suitable candidate for taking on a position of heavier responsibility.

The agreeable email type: A 3 pm deadline and it's already 2:30? No problem, you'll just shift around what you're doing now to accommodate the person's request. Other people may send you emails that are curt or even rude, but you won't read too much into their motives. Instead, you'll assume they are stressed or in a rush, and meet their request to the best of your ability. You're always willing to volunteer for any committee assignments, and when you're asking others for help, you are polite and respectful. You never use passive aggressive tactics to stonewall or seek retribution even when others deserve your scorn by criticizing you unfairly or making unreasonable demands. Your even temperament and genuine tendency to like people means that you will never fire off an angry email that you later regret.

Recommendations: For the most part, you're doing fine because you project a positive image to others, are cooperative and helpful, and never spit out angry accusations no matter what someone does to rattle your chains. But being too easy-going might lead you to be perceived as a pushover, and your extra duties might pile up hopelessly because you're always willing to chip in and donate your time. To help balance out your over-zealousness to be nice, you need to learn to say "no." Start with something that is easy to refuse to do that you know someone else is capable of doing and then move on to something that would go against your will to please but would add unnecessary complications to your already busy life. You can still say nice things in your emails; just don't feel overly pressured to please.

The neurotic email type: With your tendency to worry and over-think small, everyday situations, you scrutinize each email you receive for signs of possible criticism or hidden meaning. If a person who used to sign off with "Best regards" now merely says "Regards," you wonder if the disappearance of "Best" means that this person no longer cares about you. A bounced-back email that says you were "rejected from the listserv" might cause you to think that you're no longer wanted in the group, rather than to figure that there was a computer glitch somewhere. Before you send an email, you read and re-read it not, as the conscientious type does to find errors, but to make sure you haven't said something that could get you into trouble. If someone doesn't respond to your email after a few days, you figure you said something wrong rather than realizing the person might be busy or not think it's necessary to reply.

Recommendation: Neuroticism in your email world may reflect difficulties you're experiencing in other areas of your life, such as struggling with an anxiety disorder or depression. However, if your difficulties are limited to email, don't cause extreme distress, or don't cause impairment in other areas of your life, then there are some steps you can take to exorcise with your email demons. First, you need to realize that email by its very nature is impersonal and that many people don't really mean to imply something negative if they're being terse or just commenting on something that isn't a criticism of you. Second, if you worry about someone's reaction to something you said, then go ahead and ask that person to clarify. You can even pick up the phone to discuss it. Third, don't ruminate over every possible implication of your own email language. You may end up spending far too much time on each email and important deadlines may pass you by. Supervisors who pick up on your extreme sensitivity may believe (rightly or wrongly) that you can't handle the slings and arrows that come with higher-up positions. Toughen up your outer shell so that you're not so sensitive to criticism and your online life will be much less stressful.

Obviously, any simple typology runs the risk of oversimplifying. There are many shades of gray within these five email types. However, gaining insight into the persona you project in your emails can help you keep your job, get a job, and enjoy a more fulfilling life, both on- and offline.

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.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011

More from Psychology Today

More from Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, ABPP

More from Psychology Today