Enter the maze

What does your email address say about you?

three young people sit at laptops

Everyone’s a little bit superficial. Even if we pride ourselves on being unjudgemental, whenever we meet someone we make guesses about their personality, and sometimes from the smallest clues. Neat appearance? We often bet they’ve got tidy lives too. Fidgety? Probably nervous. Researchers have found that we even make those kinds of judgements about people’s screen names and email addresses. But is that fair? Can you really tell what someone’s like from their email?

A team at the University of Leipzig in Germany wanted to find out. Almost 600 teenagers gave them their email addresses, which then went to a group of people to get their first impressions. These judges imagined what they thought the person was like in real life – based only on their email address – and gave them a rating on six different personality traits.

Underscore your personality

Even though they each did their judging separately, the judges came up with pretty similar guesses as each other. People tended to think that anyone with a Hotmail address was more extroverted – they were more likely to enjoy being the centre of attention. The same went for people that had funny email addresses. If you had an address that was boastful or a bit sexy, the judges guessed you probably thought a lot of yourself. People even had ideas about how many underscores were in an address – more made you look like you liked variety and were open to new experiences. When all the rating was over the researchers were surprised to find how consistent the judges’ answers were. Even in something as small as an email address, it looked like people shared the same stereotypes about what they meant.

an arrow poised over an email inbox

The first impression test

Were those stereotypes correct? Well, there was a way to find out. Each person who put in an email address had also taken a personality test that rated the very same things the judges had been asked to rate. So when a judge thought that someone was likely to enjoy new things, the researchers could go back to their test and see if it was true. In the end it turned out that there was a kernel of truth in the judges’ predictions. They weren’t always right, but the judges did get a few handles on people’s personalities just from their email addresses.

Having a creative email address really does mean you’re probably more open to new things. Remember those underscores, the ones that people thought made you look like you liked variety? They were right about that too. That personality trait – called ‘openness’ – was what the judges were best at spotting. They were also good at telling what someone thought of themselves. If your email name is ‘thefascinatingking’ you probably are really that boastful in real life, but if it’s ‘shyguy’ you’re more likely to be a bit neurotic.

Fooled you!

Sometimes the judges all agreed on something that turned out to be completely wrong. The judges all thought they could tell when someone would be the life of the party – like if they had a funny address, or if they used Hotmail – but the personality tests showed there weren’t any factors in an email address that tell you reliably whether that’s true. That enjoyment of being around people, called ‘extroversion’, was the only trait the experiment looked at that email addresses couldn’t tell you anything about.

It’s maybe not surprising that certain traits of email addresses say something about your personality – after all, if you choose a name rather than use your real one, that’s kind of the point. The thing is, when even subtle choices like what email service you use affect how people see you, it shows just how much we all rely on figuring out what a new acquaintance is like. Lots of tiny little clues, from dress sense to address sense, add up to our first impression of someone.