THE BASIC PSYCHOLOGICAL FEATURES OF E-MAIL COMMUNICATION

by John Suler, Ph.D.

E-mail may be the most important, unique method for communicating and developing relationships since the telephone. First of all, it is easy to use. People also find it familiar and safe because it is similar in many respects to writing letters -- minus the annoyances of addressing envelopes, licking stamps, and trips to the mail box. Of all the methods for developing relationships on the internet, it is the most common -- and perhaps the most powerful.

Although friendships and romances may indeed begin in text-driven chat rooms, MOOs, MUDs, or the newer multimedia chat environments, these relationships almost always progress to e-mail as a way to deepen the communication. It is a more private, more reliable, less chaotic way to talk. Even when other methods improve greatly by becoming more effectively visual and auditory -- as in video teleconferencing -- e-mail will not disappear. Many people will prefer it BECAUSE it is a non-visual and non-auditory form of communication. After all, we don't see people rushing out to buy video equipment to accessorize their telephone -- even though that technology has been available for some time.

E-mail is not just electronic mail sent via the internet. E-mail communication creates a psychological space in which pairs of people -- or groups of people -- interact. It creates a context and boundary in which human relationships can unfold. Here are some of the basic, nuts and bolts features of e-mail communication:

Typed Text (TextTalk) -- People type words to communicate via e-mail. More technologically sophisticated methods enable you to incorporate pictures and sounds into the message, but that's a more complicated process that destroys the simplicity and ease of use that attracts many people to e-mailing. On the other hand, some people may not be attracted to e-mail BECAUSE it involves typing. While everyone knows how to talk, not everyone knows how to type.

Some people also may not feel comfortable or skilled in expressing themselves through writing. The typing/writing barrier filters some people out of the e-mail world. For those who love to write, e-mail is heaven. It's even possible that there is a difference in cognitive style between people who love to communicate with written words and those who don't. "Text talk," as I like to call it, is a language unto itself.

No Face-to-Face Cues -- In the typed text of e-mail, you can't see other people's faces or hear them speak. All those subtle voice and body language cues are lost, which can make the nuances of communicating more difficult. But humans are creative beings. Avid e-mailers have developed all sorts of innovative strategies for expressing themselves through typed text. A skilled writer may be able to communicate considerable depth and subtlety in the deceptively simple written word. Despite the lack of face-to-face cues, conversing via e-mail has evolved into a sophisticated, expressive art form.

Anonymity -- People may not know who you are or where you are when you send them an e-mail. If you want, you can use a pseudonym in the message. And the return address contains only general information about where you are. The average user doesn't know how to track down the origin and identity of a mysterious message. If someone is determined to remain hidden, they can send their mail through an anonymous mailer service that will strip away all identifying information from the e-mail. This potential for anonymity in e-mailing disinhibits some people. They say things they wouldn't ordinarily say. The lack of face-to-face cues amplifies this disinhibiting effect. In some cases the result may be people who speak in an aggressive, antisocial manner. Sometimes it encourages people to be more open, honest, and affectionate. Anonymity isn't intrinsically a "good" or "bad" thing. It cuts both ways.

Asynchronous Interaction -- E-mail conversations do not occur in "real time." You and your partner do not have to be sitting at the computer at the same moment in order to talk. Unlike face-to-face encounters, which are synchronous, e-mail discussions do not require you to respond on-the-spot to what they other has said. You have time to think, evaluate, and compose your reply. Some people take advantage of this convenient "zone for reflection." Some do not. When I receive a message that emotionally stirs me up, I apply my "Hold On!" rule of thumb. I compose a reply without sending it (or write nothing), wait 24 hours, then go back to reread the other person's message and my unsent reply. Very often, I interpret the other person's message differently -- usually less emotionally -- the second time around. Very often, the reply I do send off is very different (much more rationale and mature) than the one I WOULD have sent the day before. The "Hold On!" rule of thumb has saved me from unnecessary misunderstandings and arguments (see the section on transference).

Adjustable Conversing Speed -- Because e-mail communication is asynchronous, the rate at which you converse is maneuverable. A conversation may occur over the course of minutes, days, weeks, or months. Interactive time can be shortened or stretched, as needed. Changes in the pacing of the e-mail exchange between two people reflects the dynamics of their relationship.

Adjustable Group Size -- Most e-mail programs allow you to cc people or create a mailing list. These features make it very easy to expand a dyad conversation into a group discussion. Large groups of dozens or more people can be managed through such programs as "listserv." The membership boundary of the e-mail interactive space is as flexible as its members want it to be. Sometimes the boundaries are hidden: people can be dropped from a discussion without their even knowing it. Many of the ideas discussed in this article apply to e-mail dyads as well as groups. But the topic of mailing lists is a whole universe unto itself, involving all the subtleties and complexities of group dynamics. For example, through what stages does an e-mail group progress?; what is it like being a member of an online working group, such as a wizard mailing list?; how can decisions be made in a mailing list?; what are the pros and cons of online support groups?

Spam -- Inevitably, e-mail users are subjected to the "spam" of unrequested messages designed to sell an idea or a product. Junk mail. To internet oldtimers, spam is anathema. It's the apocalyptic sign of the commercialization of cyberspace. People subjectively experience e-mail as a personal space in which they interact with friends and colleagues. Spam is the commercial that pops up in your face, intruding on that private zone. In the list of incoming mail, it stands out like a wart. One of the very few good things about spam is that it reminds you of how e-mail is NOT a totally private space. Unwelcomed others can inject their irrelevance. And although it rarely happens, technically clever sociopathic and other nosy people can secretly listen in on your conversations.

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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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