Why people forgive your bad spelling in email “sent from my iPhone”

Do you have one of these sig-file apologies at the end of your phone mail?

You probably should. A recent study suggests that it’ll improve your image — because when recipients see that you wrote the email on your phone, they’re more likely to forgive your crappy grammar and spelling. And therein lies some fascinating psychology of our machine age!

In the experiment, Caleb T. Carr and Chad Stefaniak took 111 undergraduates and had them assess an email that was purportedly written by the “HR director of a large accounting firm”. The students were split randomly into four groups, and each group was shown a slightly different version of the message. One group saw a version of the message with correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, and it looked like it came from someone who’d written it on a computer: i.e. the signature line just listed the HR person’s name and organization. The second group saw the same message, but with several sloppy errors introduced. (It’s below.) The third group and fourth groups saw the same respective messages — one correct, one incorrect — except this time the signature included the line ‘‘Sent from my iPhone’’.

After reading the message, the students in each group were asked to rate how credible they found the sender, on a scale of 1 to 5, from low to high.

The results? When the message had correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, the sender was rated as being very credible — and there was little difference between whether the email seemed to have been composed on a computer or a phone. But when the message had errors in it, things changed: Students attributed higher credibility to the person who’d written the lousy message on a phone. They were more forgiving of errors, as this chart of the results shows:

Now, note that Y axis on that chart has been truncated to emphasize the spread, so it’s not as dramatic as it seems. But it’s still a pretty significant effect.

In one sense, this finding confirms what I’d already expected: We’re aware that our machines introduce quirks in how others communicate with us, and we account for them. This is an old behavior, of course. We engage in linguistic code-switching all the time, accepting as natural that our friends will use language more casual or even coarse when we’re hanging out alone as compared to when we’re with their parents or employers. But it’s intriguing to see evidence that we’re now intuiting the code-shift brokered by this particular machine environment: A tiny glass screen with an intangible keyboard, upon which it’s super easy to make mistakes. (I wonder what we’d have found if we’d done this research back in the 19th century, when manual typewriters were the hot new tech?)

As the authors note, one could sneakily hack this effect to appear more credible … even while at the computer:

Unfortunately, less scrupulous professionals could go so far as to alter their desktop’s e-mail client to automatically include a signature block imitating a mobile device to take strategic advantage of the error forgiveness that accompanies mobile e-mail.


I’m also wondering how autocorrect plays into this. I’d be interested to see this study repeated not with errors of punctuation, spelling and grammar, but errors of substitution — i.e. sentences where a wrong word has been inserted into an otherwise correct sentence. When it comes to our compositional style on mobile phones, the main algorithmic error du jour is autocorrect: The machine mistakenly predicting which word we’re intending to type. I bet that autocorrect errors are now so common, and their source so well understood, that we’re similarly forgiving of mobile messages that contain weird, misplaced words.

Indeed, the existence of pop-culture sites like Damn You Autocorrect! indicate that we’re developing a pretty good literacy, and sense of humor, about this particular form of inadvertent cyborg utterance. Given the fact that the majority of stuff on Damn You Autocorrect revolves around Iphones accidentally creating sexually inappropriate substitutions of absolutely epic dimensions, you could say that autocorrect is the Freudian slip of the digital psyche. Of course, a lot of the particularly racy errors submitted to Damn You Autocorrect are probably faked, but frankly that might make them even more awesome: We’re sufficiently aware of autocorrect problems that we’ve created a literary form out of them.

(The full paper — “Sent from My iPhone: The Medium and Message as Cues of Sender Professionalism in Mobile Telephony” — is here, but alas is paywalled. It was so awesome I wanted to write about it anyway.)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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