by John Suler, Ph.D.

A person's ability to communicate effectively via e-mail depends highly on his or her writing skills. People who hate to write probably will not become consistent e-mail users. Regular and avid users usually enjoy writing. Some even report that they PREFER writing as a way to express themselves. They take delight in words, sentence structure, and the opportunity to craft exactly how they wish to express their thoughts and moods. They enjoy that "zone of reflection" where they can ponder and self-reflect before expressing themselves.

As such, e-mail usually is a less spontaneous form of communicating than speech. Unlike verbal conversation -- where words issue forth and immediately evaporate -- writing places one's thoughts in a more visible, permanent, concrete, and objective format. An e-mail message is a tiny packet of self-representation that is launched off into cyberspace. Some even experience it as a creative work, a gift sent to one's internet pal. It's a piece of oneself that experienced e-mail users enjoy constructing.

The quality of the relationship between e-mail correspondents rests on their writing skills. The better people can express themselves through writing, the more the relationship can develop and deepen. Poor writing can result in misunderstandings and possibly conflicts. In the absence of an accurate perception of what the other is trying to say, people tend to project their own expectations, anxieties, and fantasies onto the other. A disparity in writing ability between e-mail partners also can be problematic. The equivalent in in-person encounters would be one person who is very eloquent and forthcoming, talking to another who speaks awkwardly and minimally. The loquacious one eventually may resent putting so much effort into the relationship and taking all the risks of self-disclosure. The quiet one may feel controlled, ignored, and misunderstood.

We tend to think of writing abilities as a fixed skill -- a tool for expressing oneself that is either sophisticated or not. It's also possible that the quality of one's writing is affected by the quality of the relationship with the other. As an e-mail relationship deepens -- and trust develops -- a person may open up to more expressive forms of writing. They are more willing to experiment, take risks -- not just in what specific thoughts or emotions they express, but also in the words and composition used.

Spelling and grammar conjure up all sorts of memories and emotions from the school years of one's childhood. Your self-concept may ride on those memories. In the course of an e-mail relationship, those issues from the past may be stirred up. Writing isn't just a tool for developing the e-mail relationship. Writing affects the relationship, and the relationship influences the quality of the writing. Writing effectiveness changes as a result of what is happening in the ongoing e-mail encounter. Composition advances when people feel safe and are ready to explore; it regresses when they feel threatened, hurt, or angry. Those changes reflect the developmental changes in the relationship.

In addition to writing skill, writing STYLE also affects the e-mail relationship and is in turn affected by it. Concrete, emotional and abstract expression, complexity of vocabulary and sentence structure, the organization and flow of thought -- all reflect one's cognitive/personality style and influence how the other reacts to you.

Compulsive people may construct highly organized, intellectualized messages with little emotional revelation. Histrionic people may show less concern about organization and much more for the emotions they express. Narcissists may write extremely long, rambling blocks of paragraphs. Schizoids may produce very short but penetrating messages. Different writing/personality styles may be compatible, incompatible, or complementary to other styles.


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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