No one likes spam emails, but some of us have lately had nothing better to do than to sort through them (college students emerging from boring summer internships know what I mean). I’ve received thousands of junk e-mails over the past few years, but one day this summer, I decided to sit down and actually read a few. Surprisingly, it proved worthwhile.

What does spam say about us — both those who create it and those for whom it is created? The original intent of spam emails is no different from the junk mail in your real mailbox or the glossy inserts in the Sunday paper: business. But for every Netflix 30-day trial offer, there are ten fraudulent solicitations from very formal Nigerian businessmen, several winning lottery numbers (invariably from a mystical European country) and, of course, plenty of offers for miracle pills.

Most of those constitute the dark side of spam — more than just annoying — they ensnare plenty of users into dangerous scams. But these days, almost everyone should know that any e-mail asking for your bank account and routing numbers to validate your library card is a rather uninspired scam.

Looking beyond the well-documented scam or explicit facets of junk e-mail, we come to the little matter of language. I know that’s an iffy subject — in a time when a black man who speaks authoritatively is called an elitist, this discussion is probably an impossible battle. But stay with me for a moment.

In personal encounters, nothing defines people with a better combination of efficiency and accuracy than their language. I don’t mean accents — such obvious indicators can signal only broad and probably unfair stereotypes. But go a step beyond, and you learn exactly who you’re dealing with. Word choice often indicates cultural influences and broader conversational style reveals much more about personality than clothing or outward appearance (both of which are more conscious choices).

In every encounter, people talk the way they think they’re supposed to talk, and that yields a gold mine: A person’s conception of how the world works. Spammers are no different. Their execution speaks volumes about how our society believes certain things are done.

Let’s take, for example, a spam e-mail I received a few months ago. The subject line of the e-mail reads: “((((((( Congratulations ))))))) Your e-mail Won our Lottery.”

Not impressed? Not even with the 14 parentheses that presumably signal a jubilant cry ringing from the hilltops? This particular e-mail was indeed very easy to sniff out. For example, why would a message that originated in America (as indicated by the little flag next to the sender’s address) award a prize in British pounds sterling? And why would an official e-mail from Yahoo! be sent from a Gmail account? I know Google’s good, but come on.

Getting into the actual language of the e-mail, we find sputterings like: “KEEP THIS PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL UNTIL YOU RECEIVE YOUR PRIZE MONEY. NOTE THAT NOBODY OR EVEN THE APPOINTED BANK HAS THE RIGHT TO TOUCH, DEDUCT/CUT OR GET ACCESS TO YOUR PRIZE MONEY FOR ANY REASON THEY HAVE BEEN WARNED STRICTLY!”

The first thing to mention is the poor grammar, but that’s not surprising: The average person (and thus the average spammer) is a poor writer and will suffer missteps in attempting to copy official language. Another thing to note is that people often use particular words just because they think they are supposed to. This quote, for example, includes the words “private” and “confidential,” and “deduct” and “cut” in a redundant, over-the-top attempt at official bank language.

Such spam signals with stark clarity the vast divide between how we actually talk and how we think we are supposed to talk. This divide is what causes all these stylistic errors in emulation. (I don’t doubt that some errors are by spammers who don’t speak English. But, as a former writing tutor, I would guess that the error patterns noted above are the work of someone who can speak English fluently, but has little practice writing it.)

Most important is the meaning of that divide between how we talk, and what we perceive to be professional language. The average person is clueless as to how the latter works, and therefore suspicious of it. Any attempts at lifting the level of discourse, be it in political campaigns or in the workplace, must begin with the defeat of the idea that correct language is reserved for formal situations. That process starts when we stop emulating polished language and start actually learning it.

True, such a thing might empower spammers, but that’s a small price to pay for how much it would empower the rest of us.

Imran Syed can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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