by John Suler, Ph.D.

The lack of face-to-face cues in e-mail often results in ambiguity. Without hearing a person's voice -- or seeing body language and facial expressions -- you may not be exactly sure what the person means. This ambiguity enhances the tendency to project your own expectations, wishes, and anxieties unto the somewhat shadowy figure sitting at the other end of the internet -- what is called a "transference reaction." As an e-mail relationship develops over time, there may be ebbs and flows in the transferential feelings and attitudes towards the other person. When you first connect through e-mail, they tend to be minimal since you do not know the other person and have little psychological investment in the relationship. Transference reactions are more likely to surface when emotional attachments begin to form but you still do not have a good "feel" for the person due to that lack of f2f cues. Other peak moments occur when emotional topics come up but you are unable to pinpoint exactly where the other person stands on the issue. When in doubt, we fall back on our old expectations about how people relate to us -- expectations that formed in our early relationships with our parents and siblings. Black hole experiences -- the ultimate "blank screens" -- also are notorious for stirring up transference.

Under ideal conditions, as we spend more and more time conversing with an e-mail partner, we begin to understand and work through those transference reactions so that we can see the other person as he/she really is. However, even under the best of circumstances, there often is some aspect of our mental image of the other person that is based more on our own expectations and needs than on the reality of the other person. It may be the way we think he looks, her voice sounds, or some aspect of his personality. We may not even be consciously aware that we've formed that impression until we meet the person f2f and discover, much to our surprise, that they are -- in some way -- very different than what we expected. Generally speaking, transference reactions are unconscious. We don't see them coming, and don't fully realize how they are steering our behavior. That's why they can get lead us astray and into trouble.

Some incoming e-mail may be prepackaged with transference even though the person is a complete stranger to us. If you have a web site -- or other information about you is available on the internet -- people can form inaccurate impressions which they launch your way in the form of an e-mail. They may idealize you, detest you, or anything inbetween. These kind of transference reactions often are deeply ingrained, prepared responses in the person that are ready to leap out at any opportune moment. On a fairly regular basis, I receive e-mail from people whom I call "spoon-feeders." There is no greeting, no sign-off line or name -- just a terse request, or should I say DEMAND, for something. For example:

"I'm working on a project about online relationships. Send me information about this topic. I need it by tomorrow."

Even though many articles about this topic are easily available on my web site, I'm usually happy to share some ideas with people via e-mail. Yet messages like the one above don't convey any interest in a relationship. The transference reaction is one in which I am perceived as an information machine, just waiting to dole out data upon request. Leaning towards passive dependency, they are operating at a rather immature interpersonal level. They see others in terms of their own needs rather than as separate people with needs of their own. The spoon-feeder also might be a good example of transference towards one's computer ("I need control...serve me") that carries over into transference towards other people.

Unfortunately, another common transference reaction is the "chip on my shoulder" e-mail. People who have antagonistic conflicts with authority figures may feel free to send a flaming e-mail to someone they perceive as an parental figure. The sometimes extreme hostility in such a message reflects the depth and intensity of the transference reaction. Anyone who has a web site that in any way presents themselves as an authority on some topic may be subjected to the "chip on my shoulder" e-mail.

The bottom line with these kinds of unrequested e-mails is this: You may not have a relationship with them, but they think they have a relationship with you.


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.


Please help support our SelfhelpMagazine mission
so that we may continue serving you.
Choose your
support amount here: