On more than one occasion, I've opened up an email on my MacBook, typed out an answer and then, against my better judgment, typed out four familiar words: "Sent from my iPhone."
That's right: I've manually added the brief disclaimer that smartphone makers automatically append to emails sent from our BlackBerrys, iPhones, Galaxy handsets and HTC phones. I've even caught myself purposefully sending emails from my iPhone while sitting at my computer -- purely to get out of writing a lengthy, detailed response.
I've been embarrassed to admit the tactic (and still am), but a study highlighted this week by author and tech writer Clive Thompson suggests my deceitful behavior may be a perfectly rational insurance policy against seeming careless or incompetent in cases when I'm really just short on time or unwilling to make it. "Sent from my iPhone" is no longer just a pretentious sign-off (though it's that, too). It's acquired a more practical purpose.
The 19-character disclaimer, with its implications of movement, speed and on-the-fly response, not only excuses typos, but offers a free pass on including any sort of detail or depth to a message. The same devices we use to keep in touch with one another -- and to make ourselves available at all times -- are coming to our rescue when we want to avoid each other.
"People now see it as an excuse or cloak," said Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, of the iPhone signature. "It's definitely not only a means of communication, but it's also a means of escape from richer, deeper and in-the-face communication."
We've embraced technology's shortcomings as a way of masking our own. And though our devices aren't fail-safe, we blame them for our bad behavior far more often than is actually warranted -- usually, whenever it's convenient to do so. When someone we don't want to speak to is trying to get ahold of us, Verizon will start mysteriously dropping calls, our iPhone becomes more prone to running out of battery, Facebook will mistakenly send messages to our spam folder and the bad reception in the subway will keep their messages from coming through.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research showed this technological scapegoating to be actually quite effective. After receiving a typo-addled email that he instantly pardoned upon catching sight of the iPhone sign-off, Chad Stefaniak, chair of the accounting department at Central Michigan University and the study's co-author, decided to investigate how the brief email disclaimer shapes how people perceive an individual's professionalism and competence.
Stefaniak and his co-author, Caleb Carr, showed 111 students error-ridden emails with and without "Sent from my iPhone" appended to the bottom of the message, and asked them to rate the competence and "organizational prestige" of the email's sender. They found that undergraduates forgave the errors in the email that appeared to come from a smartphone, but not the grammatical mistakes in the message that appeared to come from a desktop computer, whose sender was seen as considerably less credible than the one whose signature indicated he'd typed the email on a smartphone.
To err is human. To err on an iPhone is divine.
The results were so striking that the researchers ventured that "less scrupulous" people might append the "Sent from my iPhone" signature to their desktop correspondence as insurance against errors. (No! What monster would do such a thing?) Our tolerance of sloppy, shoddy communication via smartphones may also put us at risk for being duped by people who hope to blame their shoddy social skills on their devices.
"This forgiveness about grammar and formalized communication can overshadow the fact someone might not be good at grammar," Stefaniak noted. "The risk is that the mobile device might mask someone's true credibility. You might perceive them as credible when they're really not."
That forgiveness stems from a sense of "technological empathy," Stefaniak explains. The proliferation of personal technology -- 56 percent of Americans now have smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center -- means most people are intimately aware of the difficulties of pecking out words on a mini-keyboard or trying to look up information on a small screen. When I fake an iPhone reply, I do so with the full knowledge the recipient will recognize that it means I'm operating at a limited capacity, on a tiny touchscreen device that won't allow me to look up the detailed information he's asking for, or include any pleasantries or answer in great depth. It's not that I won't answer your irritating question, the signature implies, it's just that I can't.
Yet just as the signature can make careless answers seem more careful, it can also make careful answers seem less considered. Wary of an email being dismissed because it was sent on-the-go, I've removed the signature more often than I've kept it in. A colleague of mine observed that emails from smartphones don't seem to offer a full or credible response.
A familiarity with technology's flaws may be only part of what drives our forgiveness, however. The goodwill effect of the iPhone signature also stems from its position as a subtle marker of status and class, notes Nathan Jurgenson, a social media theorist and graduate student in sociology at the University of Maryland.
"'Sent from my iPhone,' especially in the early days of the iPhone when that signature became a cultural norm, also said, 'I'm successful, I'm of a certain class, I'm hip and modern and with it," wrote Jurgenson in an email.
Though no study has yet examined whether Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone owners are afforded the same consideration as their iPhone-toting brethren, those distinctions could soon be meaningless: As technology improves, we may lose our roster of excuses and white lies, and be forced to be more genuine in our own communications. As the gadgets get better, we may get better.
Already, apps like Find My Friends or Google Latitude allow people to see exactly where their dinner date is when she claims she's "almost there. Google Now can alert users when traffic on their route to work means they should leave early to avoid arriving late for a meeting. If such tools continue to proliferate, old excuses like "I got lost" or "We got stuck in traffic" could become null and void.
But just in case:
--Sent from my iPhone
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