For another project I’m working on, I’ve been reading tips and tricks for writing ‘successful’ marketing emails – you know, those emails that organisations want you to open, read, and ideally click on links to redirect you to various websites.
What struck me about most of the tips – written by sales people and marketing experts, not linguists – is that they seem to rely heavily on culturally bound assumptions and knowledge. For example, humour is cited as one of ‘7 Proven Ways to Write Emails that Get Replies, Backed by Science’ (opens in new window). Tip 3 (‘Throw in the Frog’) offers an example of how humour can increase reply rate.
The author suggests that one reason why the email sender hasn’t heard from the addressee is because ‘You’ve fallen and can’t get up – in that case let me know and I’ll call 911’.
Funny though some may find it, this line may not work outside of a small audience who have the knowledge needed to interpret it how the author intends: as a joke meant to lighten the mood, and eventually to push the addressee into replying to the email.
The reader has to pick up on the line ‘You’ve fallen and can’t get up’ and correctly interpret its ‘hidden meaning’.
Linguists call this type of hidden meaning a contextualization cue. Contextualisation cues are everywhere in language, and play an important role in conversation and understanding. They signal shared contextual presuppositions, or background knowledge shared by all parties in communication.
By their very nature, contextualisation cues aren’t commented on if they’re correctly interpreted, i.e., in the way that the author intends. Correct interpretation adds extra meaning without needing to be explicit.
So, in this example, ‘You’ve fallen and can’t get up’ isn’t a reference to someone actually falling down and being unable to stand up. It references a popular and once-ubiquitous US television advert for Lifecall, If you watched TV in the US in the 1980s, you could not escape this advert, and its ubiquity eventually led to mockery (much like Where’s The Beef, another ubiquitous US advert from the 1980s).
If you didn’t know that information, you’d likely miss a layer of meaning – humour – that the author of the email was relying on to lighten the mood, make the email memorable, and get the sale.
Attempts at humour can backfire. If you don’t get the joke, you can feel left out, isolated, or even like you’re not speaking the same language as the person who made the joke (and everyone else who might be laughing at the joke).
The attempt at humour could then have the opposite effect that was intended – instead of laughing and the mood being lightened, you’re feeling resentful, irritated, puzzled, and like you don’t have a lot in common with those who are laughing.
To sum up, humour can be a powerful tool in business, but make sure you’re using it appropriately for your audience.
Further reading (opens in new window / tab)
A bit more