science of us

The Strict, Subtle Rules of a Hey Ladies! Email

Photo: Philipp Nemenz/Getty Images/Cultura

In 2013, writer Michelle Markowitz was trying her best to enjoy a weekend getaway with some friends — but, annoyingly, her phone wouldn’t stop buzzing. It wasn’t work, but it was starting to feel like it: She was “60 emails deep,” she says, on a Gmail thread about planning a bachelorette party.

“It was driving me nuts,” Markowitz remembers, “and in a moment of crankiness, I put out a tweet that said something like, “The worst part of every bachelorette party is all the emails that start with Hey ladies!’”

Soon, she was DMing with Caroline Moss, a fellow writer who’d seen the tweet, “going back and forth, and venting, and laughing,” Markowitz says, about the inbox-clogging, cat-herding task that was bachelorette-party planning. Moss and Markowitz initially pondered writing a one-act play or a musical told through parody “hey ladies” emails; ultimately, they turned their back-and-forth banter into a hit column on the now-defunct humor blog The Toast. And this week, their book, also titled Hey Ladies, arrives on shelves.

Hey Ladies is an epistolary novel for the age of group chats and reply-all threads: Through emails and text messages, it chronicles a year in the life of eight best friends living in New York, starting on a bleary, hungover January 1 (with a postmortem of a night of drunken single-gal mischief) and ending on the following bleary, hungover January 1 (with a postmortem of the drunken mischief at one of the emailers’ New Year’s Eve wedding). Their emails illustrate how a surprise proposal, a spate of money troubles and work-life turbulence, and an avalanche of bridal-party drama affect a group friendship — and for many readers, it’s hitting just a little too close to home. As the founding editors of The Toast themselves proclaim in a blurb on the back of the book, “There’s a level of detail here that can only come from years of paying attention to one’s own worst impulses.”

So how does Hey Ladies manage to pull off its hilarious, sometimes mortifying verisimilitude? I spoke to Deborah Tannen, Georgetown linguistics professor and author of You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships, about how Markowitz and Moss managed to nail the tone and unspoken subtext of women’s friend-group planning emails, how the text and email mediums specifically lend themselves to deception and back-channel communication, and the subtle tyranny of “I already made the reservation.”

According to Moss, there are three basic components to a prototypical Hey Ladies email: An expressed desire to schedule an event on a date that works for everyone’s schedules, followed by immediate disregard for everyone’s schedules (“Everyone’s like, ‘Tuesday and Wednesday would be good,’ then you get the email back that’s like ‘Great, Thursday it is’”); a request that everyone please Venmo or PayPal or send a check to the emailer; and a hefty quantity of enthusiastic exclamation points.

Tannen, in particular, loved the book’s spot-on imitation of women’s digital writing patterns — it indulges in lots of repeated letters for emphasis and, of course, the aforementioned punctuation tic. “The exclamation point is kind of the standard default punctuation mark now,” she said. “The standard default punctuation in paper print was the period, but a period now on these digital platforms has a negative meaning. It means you’re angry. The default would be nothing or an exclamation point.

“I think for women in particular, if you don’t have an exclamation point, it’s like you’re under-enthusiastic,” she adds.
Tannen calls this concept “enthusiasm constraint”: “You have to show a certain level of enthusiasm or people will think you don’t mean it or you’re being sarcastic,” she said. “Then the multiple ones show actual enthusiasm.”

Tannen says women also learn very quickly that they’re in what she calls a communication “double bind.” “A lot of the ways that women talk to each other are designed to avoid coming across as too demanding,” she said. “If we talk in ways that are expected of us as women, especially at work, we’re liked, but we’ll be seen as less confident and less competent than we really are. If we talk in ways that a person in authority, a leader, is expected to talk — confidently, putting yourself forward, saying what you’re good at, being clear — you’re going to be seen as too aggressive.” Hey Ladies, Tannen notes, smartly captures the ways women communicate indirectly to seem as though they’re being nicer or more accommodating than they really are.

As an example, she points to an email from a maid of honor thanking the mother of the bride for throwing the bridal shower that ends up standing in the way of the party the MOH was planning: “I thought the garden salad and hard dinner rolls were a fun throwback to American foods before the culinary arts began to embrace locally sourced artisanal foods, and it really made me grateful to return to the food capital of the world!” In Hey Ladies, it’s also not uncommon to see a hyper-restrictive set of rules for an event or an absurd series of requests (“You’re all responsible for ordering, buying, and then dyeing your shoes; the color is Hollywood and it’s a really subdued glitter gold”) laid out next to a “Not to be a bridezilla, of course!” or a subtle reminder that the rules and requirements are even steeper for those who aren’t “my special girls” — and those emails often end with a mitigating “So excited!” or a “Love you all!”

Hey Ladies also manages to nail the visceral discomfort of what I like to call the “Hey girl…” text. In contrast to the forceful enthusiasm of a “Hey ladies!” email, the “Hey girl…” text usually gets sent by one woman to just one other woman when she’s reluctantly, uneasily delivering news she knows the recipient won’t want to hear or starting a conversation she knows will be painful. Hey girl, she’s so sorry to do this but she’s bailing on the vacation you’ve been planning for months; she has to drop out of your fundraiser; or, perhaps, as in Hey Ladies, she’s kind of hurt you didn’t ask her to be maid of honor, or thinks your friend who thinks your wedding festivities are getting a little excessive might have a point.

This is also, Tannen says, a byproduct of the double bind; because directness is often read as aggression, women learn to handle confrontation in indirect, self-consciously accommodating ways as well. She vividly recalls one female student’s account of confronting her roommate who was going to throw a party the Thursday night before the student had a big paper due. The student casually dropped into conversation that she had a paper due Friday, “and the roommate said, ‘Then we definitely won’t have a party.’ She says, ‘Oh, no, no. That’s okay.’ The friend says, ‘No, no, no. We definitely won’t have a party.’ In the words of the student, ‘That time I didn’t protest.’”

Sometimes this indirectness can manifest itself in the ways the planning-minded subtly nudge other participants to fall in line, rather than specifically asking them to do so. In Hey Ladies, this gets fleshed out, beautifully and secondhand panic-inducingly, by Moss and Markowitz’s character who’s always “taking it into her own hands” to make expensive, non-refundable dinner reservations or to just go ahead and order copies of what she’s decided is their book club book-of-the-month and then ask for reimbursement, in the name of saving her friends the time and indecisiveness.

Another aspect Tannen found striking was the book’s way of capitalizing on the many ways the email and text mediums can be weaponized or used for deception. Email and texting, she says, often give us new ways of “doing the same old stuff”: When one character “accidentally” texts her ex a sexy text written to look like it was meant for someone else, Tannen says, “that’s just adapting means of deception to the affordances of these new media, these new platforms.” Several of the subplots take place in the “off-thread” messages that intentionally leave off certain friends, for example, and in one of Moss’s favorite parts of the book, one friend shares a strategically cropped screenshot with the group in order to mislead them.

There’s a certain way emails get affected by the presence of a new, outside-the-group presence being added to the cc list, too, that Hey Ladies deftly portrays when it adds characters — one friend’s business associate, another friend’s parent, a cute guy who’s found one friend’s phone in a cab — to the thread. “There’s a way that people who are comfortable with each other, who trust each other, who have been communicating for a long time, communicate. Any time a stranger comes in, it’s like everybody sits up straight. They’re not sure what humor to use, not sure what they should refer to, because the new person may not know the background of what you’re referring to.”

In that way, Tannen says, “What you see online is an extension of what happens face-to-face.” And in a broader sense, you could say that’s the message that undergirds all of Hey Ladies. These eight friends’ digital communication records may be funny and may be fictional, but they paint an often achingly familiar portrait of what many of us already know to be true about the kinds of miniature dramas that can unfold within friendships in times of great stress or excitement, or even just in times of nightmarish logistical difficulty.

“That’s been the funniest part of this whole thing,” says Moss, who’s been asking readers to send in screenshots of the Hey Ladies–style emails they find in their own inboxes. “Everyone’s like, “I thought I was normal, and then I went into my inbox and realized that one time I sent a 1400-word email about tank-top sizing.’ It’s beautiful.”

The Strict, Subtle Rules of a Hey Ladies! Email