THE DYNAMICS OF AN E-MAIL MESSGAGE

by John Suler, Ph.D.

The body of the message is the most complex component of the e-mail. Messages can vary widely in length, organization, the flow of ideas, the use of quoted text, spelling errors, grammar sophistication, the use of caps, tabs, smileys and other unique keyboard characters, the spacing of paragraphs, and the overall visual "feel" of the message.

The structure of the e-mail body reflects the cognitive and personality style of the individual who creates it. People are compulsive will strive for well organized and logically constructed messages with few, if any, spelling or grammatical errors (they will take advantage of their spell-check programs). Those with a histrionic flair will offer a more dramatic presentation, where neatness plays a back seat to the expressive use of spacing, caps, unique keyboard characters, and colorful language. People with schizoid tendencies will be pithy, while those who are more impulsive may dash off a disorganized, spelling-challenged message with emotional phrases highlighted in shouted caps.

E-mail Empathy -- Does the sender pay attention to and anticipate the needs of the recipient? Empathic people will specifically respond to what their e-mail partners have said. They ask their partners questions about themselves and their lives. But they also construct their messages anticipating what it will be like for the recipient to read it. They write in a style that is both engaging and readily understood. With appropriate use of spacing, paragraph breaks, and various keyboard characters (....////****) to serve as highlights and dividers, they visually construct the message so that it is easy and pleasing to read. They estimate just how long is too long. Essentially, they are good writers who pay attention to the needs of their audience.

This is quite unlike people with narcissistic tendencies, who have difficulty putting themselves into the shoes of the recipient. They may produce lengthy blocks of unbroken text, expecting that their partner will sustain an interest in scrolling, reading, scrolling, reading, for seemingly endless screens of long-winded descriptions of what the sender thinks and feels. Paradoxically, the narcissistic person's need to be heard and admired may result in the recipient hitting the delete key out of boredom.

Planning versus Spontaneity -- A carefully, empathically constructed e-mail sometimes can lack spontaneity. It is possible to over-think and micro-manage the message to the point where it sounds a bit contrived. Perhaps the most effective message is one that strikes a balance between spontaneity and carefully planned organization. Also, short messages with some obvious spelling errors, glitches, or a slightly chaotic visual appearance can be a sincere expression of affection and friendship -- as if the person is willing to let you see how they look hanging around the house, wearing an old t-shirt and jeans. Or such a message can be a genuine expression of the person's state of mind at that moment. "I'm in a hurry, but I wanted to dash this off to you!" In the course of an ongoing e-mail relationship, there will be a engaging rhythm of spontaneous and carefully thought out messages that parallels the ebb and flow of the relationship itself.

Creative Keyboarding -- Humans are curious creatures. When faced with barriers, they find all sorts of creative ways to work around those barriers -- especially when those barriers involve communication. Experienced e-mailers have developed a variety of keyboard techniques to overcome some of the limitations of typed text -- techniques that almost lend a vocal and kinesthetic quality to the message. They attempt to make e-mail conversations less like postal letters and more like a face-to-face encounter. Some of these strategies come from the world of internet chat rooms.

Thank you so much! (happy, happy, happy)
[feeling insecure here]
I completely forgot! (slapping myself on the forehead)
Hi (yawn) everyone.
I know exactly what I'm talking about (scratching forehead)
(thinking this over...)
[g]

Thoughts and feelings placed in parentheses or brackets are a kind of subvocal muttering to oneself -- as if one is thinking outloud, tipping one's hand, allowing the other to peek inside one's head. There's an honest or even vulnerable quality to this parenthetical expression because you're letting the other person in on something that otherwise could be kept hidden. Actions placed in parentheses indicate body language -- an attempt to convey some of the face-to-face cues that are missing in typed text encounters. Options range from a simple standard grin [g] to more complex, personally tailored descriptions. Of course, people have much more conscious control over these parenthetical actions than they do over body language in the in-person world. Sometimes it's an intentional effort to convey some subtle mood or state of mind. In a way, one almost implicitly is saying, "Hey, if there is something hidden or unconscious going on inside me, this is what it probably is!"

I'd love to hear about *your* opinion
I urge you to PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE keep everything you have!
I will **NOT** do it!!!
On the other hand, if it _IS_ true, then we have to do something.
*big smoochies*
[[[HUGS]]]

Voice accentuation can be accomplished using caps, asterisks, underlining, and other keyboard characters. Exclamation points add to the effect. It's an attempt to mimic the changes in voice emphasis that you might hear in face-to-face world as well as the emotions that accompany that emphasis. Accentuating a single word in a sentence sometimes can drastically alter the meaning and impact of the sentence. Rather than highlighting voice, those last two examples above illustrate an action accentuation. Like parenthetical actions, it expresses body language -- but body language that is always completely intentional and obvious.

Speaking of which....
Thanks.... and.... happy birthday to you.....happy
birthday to yooooouuuuu!!
That's for sure..... On the other hand, I may be wrong.
I would say that......um..... uh....

A series of dots -- "trailers" -- can be used creatively in a variety of ways. Usually they mimic a pause in one's speaking. That pause might be used dramatically, to lead the person into or psychologically prepare them for your next idea -- sometimes even a "you might want to sit down for this" warning. Or the trailer indicates a pause to breathe (as in singing), a transition in your thinking, or a temporary lapse or faltering in your train of thought. The addition of the "um" and "uh" in that last example helps simulate the sense of hesitation and confusion in that faltering thought process. It mimics in-person speech patterns.

That's wonderful! :-)
I disagree with you Bill :-)
Take this job and shove it :-)
I have complete faith in you :-)
My, aren't we defensive :-)
I really am a serial yakker :-)
I myself have been guilty of this. :-)
Thanks for listening to my rant. :-)
I have warned you not to stray over that fine line :-)

Gotta go :-(
This is really upsetting :-(

Know what I mean? ;-)
We'll show him a thing or two. ;-)
Just throwing in my 2 cents ;-)
He has SUCH a magnetic personality ;-)
Forget PC's, there is WebTv now ;-)

As the term "emoticons" suggests, these keyboard faces are tagged onto the end of a sentence to enhance emotional expression. Including the smiley, the frown, and the winky (among others), they may amplify the feeling expressed in the sentence, add a subtle affective spin to the sentence, or even contradict its sentiment. The smiley often is used to clarify a friendly feeling when otherwise the tone of your sentence might be ambiguous. It also can reflect benign assertiveness, an attempt to undo hostility, subtle denial or sarcasm, self-consciousness, and apologetic anxiety. The winky is like elbowing your e-mail partner, implying that you both know something that doesn't need to be said outloud. It's also a good way to express sarcasm.

lol
LOL
LOL!!!!
ROFL!!!!
LMAO!!!

The ubiquitous LOL (laughing out loud) -- which originated in chat rooms -- is very handy tool for responding to something funny without having to actually say "Oh, that's funny!" It's feels more natural and spontaneous -- more like the way you would respond in a face-to-face situation. The sequence of acronyms listed above indicate increasing levels of mirth - beginning with the weak, perhaps even perfunctory "lol" and moving toward the unrestrained "rolling on floor laughing" and raucous "laughing my ass off." Once again, exclamation points enhance the effect.

Hello Sam. Thank you for the message you sent. I enjoyed it. I didn't know that you felt that way. Let's talk more about it.

Hello Sam! Thank you for the message you sent. I enjoyed it!! I didn't know that you felt that way. Let's talk more about it!

Hello Sam!! Thank you for the message you sent!! I enjoyed it!!! I didn't know that you felt that way!!! Let's talk more about it!!!

How and when to use exclamation points is a bit of an art form. Unless the sentiment of the sentence is clearly negative, they tend to lighten up the mood. But like spice in cooking, there are dangers of excess as well as omissions. Leaving out exclamation points entirely -- as in the first example above -- may result in a message that appears bland or ambiguous. Without even a hint of enthusiasm, some people might wonder if the sender is suppressing some hostility. On the other extreme, too many exclamation points -- as in the third example above -- may result in a message mood that seems contrived, shallow, or even uncomfortably manic. A message peppered lightly with exclamations, at just the right spots, can give the message a varying texture of energy that emphasizes what needs to be emphasized. Of the three examples above, the second best illustrates this.

Quoted Text -- An advantage of e-mail conversations over face-to-face ones is that you have the ability to quote parts or all of what your partner said in his previous message. Hitting "reply" (which places the arrow marks > next to the whole quoted message) and then tacking your response to the top or bottom of the e-mail is a quick and easy rejoinder. In some cases it's a very appropriate strategy -- especially when your partner's message was short, which makes it obvious what you are replying to. However, inserting a reply at the top or bottom of an entire quoted message which is LONG may be perceived by your partner as laziness or indifference on your part -- as if you simply hit the reply button, typed your response, and clicked on "send." The person may not be sure exactly what part of the message you are responding to. You also force your partner to download an unnecessarily long file. Sticking a reply at the end of the lengthy quoted message can be particularly annoying because it forces the person to scroll and scroll and scroll, looking for the reply. All in all, quoting the entirety of a hefty message may not come across as a considerate and personal response. The impersonal tone may be exacerbated by those e-mail programs that automatically preface a block of quoted text with a standardized notice like, "On Saturday, May 28, Joe Smith said:" While this automated notation may work fine in formal, business-like relationships, or on e-mail lists where multiple conversations are taking place, it may leave a bad taste in the mouth of an e-mail friend or acquaintance.

The alternative to quoting the whole message is to select out and respond individually to SEGMENTS of it. The arrow marks may appear at the beginning of each line of quoted text, or the sender may place them a the beginning and end of the quoted segment (>>often like this<<). Some people use [snip] to indicate that what follows is quoted text. It takes more time and effort to quote segments rather than the whole message, but there are several advantages. People may appreciate the fact that you put that time and effort into your response. It makes your message clearer, more to the point, easier to read. It may convey to your partner a kind of empathic attentiveness because you are responding to specific things that she said. You are letting the person know exactly what from their message stood out in your mind. Replying to several segments can result in an entertaining and intriguingly rich e-mail in which there are several threads of conversation occurring at the same time, each with a different content and emotional tone. In one multilevel e-mail, you may be joking, explaining, questioning, recalling a past event, and anticipating a future one. For continuity and clarity, several back-and-forth exchanges can be captured by embedding quoted segments. Experienced e-mail users have a variety of keyboard techniques for making a series of embedded quotes easier to read:

>> I know what you mean. He said the same thing to me.
> What was your reaction?
I didn't know exactly how to react.

>> I know what you mean. He said the same thing to me.
> What was your reaction?
------> I didn't know exactly how to react.

>> I know what you mean. He said the same thing to me.
> What was your reaction?
...... I didn't know exactly how to react.

>> I know what you mean. He said the same thing to me.
> What was your reaction?

I didn't know exactly how to react.

There is a downside to quoting segments. In flame wars, you often see people citing more and more of what the opponent said, using it as ammunition to launch counterattacks. A series of point-by-point retorts becomes a verbal slicing up of the foe, almost as if it reflects an unconscious wish to "tear up" the person by tearing up his message. Often the attacker wants to legitimize his arguments by citing the opponent's exact words, as if the citation stands as concrete, unquestionable evidence. "This is precisely what you said." However, it's very easy to take sentences out of context, completely misread their emotional tone, or juxtapose several segments extracted from different parts of the other person's e-mail and then draw a false conclusion from that forced composite of ideas.

11/30/98

John Suler, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Rider University and a practicing clinical psychologist. He has published on psychotherapy, mental imagery, and eastern philosophy. He currently maintains several web sites.

 

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