John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created Aug 98, revised June 03

E-Mail Communication and Relationships

1. The Nuts and Bolts of
E-mail Communication:

typed text (TextTalk)
missing face-to-face cues
asynchronous interaction
adjustable conversing speed
adjustable group size

2. Novice and Pro -
Intensity of E-mail Use:

avid users
regular users
casual users
newbie users
writing Abilities and Styles

3. Anatomy of an E-mail Message:

Sender's name
-- Subject line -- Greeting
The Body of the Message
...... E-mail empathy
......Planning versus spontaneity
......Creative keyboarding:
............parenthetical expression,
...........voice and action accentuation,
...........trailers, emoticons, LOL,
...........quoted text, rich text
Sign-off line and name -- Signature block

4. Advanced Issues:

An e-mail make-over
Multimedia enhancements
Just between you and me: Private language
Pacing: The ebb and flow of mail
Transference: Seeing the other clearly
Keeping record: The e-mail archive
Developmental history and meeting ftf
Dual relationships
E-mail stress
Cross-cultural e-mail

email relationships

Another version of this article appeared as: Suler, J.R. (2004). The psychology of text relationships. In Online Counseling: A manual for mental health professionals (R. Kraus, J. Zack & G. Striker, Eds). London: Elsevier Academic Press.

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 chat rooms, instant messaging, avatar communities, blogs, or other environments, these relationships almost always expand into e-mail as a way to deepen the communication. It is a more private, more reliable, less chaotic way to talk. Even when other online tools 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.



Basic Features: The Nuts and Bolts 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 complex process that some people avoid. It's the simplicity and ease of use that attracts many people to e-mailing. On the other hand, some people may not like 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, overlapping with but not quite the same as writing letters, reports, other traditional types of documents.

Missing 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 of reflection." Some do not. When I receive a message that emotionally stirs me up, I apply my "24-Hours Rule." 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 - usually much more rationale and mature - than the one I would have sent the day before. The 24-Hours Rule 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 several online services that offer e-mail group services. 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?; what happens when in-person work groups are extended into e-mail?

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 old-timers, 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 family, 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. Defending the in-box has become a game of wits between the user and the relentless spammers.



Novice and Pro: Intensity of E-mail Use

Although it seems that almost everyone is using e-mail nowadays, not everyone is using it to the same extent. One way to classify people is by the intensity of their e-mail use. People in each category tend to behave a bit differently in their e-mail relationships than people in the other categories. The impact e-mail has on your social life increases as you become more avidly involved. It becomes an upward spiraling process: the more you e-mail, the more relationships you develop, the more you need to continue e-mailing in order to stay connected to your colleagues and friends. With that ever-expanding e-mail life comes increased skill in composing, reading, and organizing e-mail. You become sensitized to the nuances of e-mail relationships, which makes that interpersonal world even more enticing, challenging, and rewarding.

For avid e-mail users, the computer is a major feature of their interpersonal and/or professional life, including dyad relationships and group memberships. Their online world has become deeply ingrained into their psyche and e-mail is an extremely important tool for psychologically maintaining that world. They check their e-mail at least once a day, often several times a day. It's one of very first things they do in the morning and may be the last thing they do before bedtime. Each day they may receive a hundred or more messages - the bulk of those messages coming from the group lists to which they belong. Some avid users may have their e-mail programs set to automatically download at regular intervals, while even more hardcore users (who may do their professional work online) check each message as soon as it comes in. For the avid user, a technical failure resulting in a loss of e-mail capability is a catastrophe. You feel cut off, out of the loop. Many avid users have some type of back-up system to counteract such disasters - for example, a second or third e-mail account, or a second e-mail capable computer (e.g., a computer at the office as well as at home). Avid users almost always have at least one online buddy who acts as an emergency intermediary. When the user's e-mail access goes down, he or she contacts the buddy who relays news of the user's predicament to their online friends and colleagues.

Regular e-mail users check and write e-mail a few times each week, usually at at a prescribed time. That scheduled e-mail session becomes a type of psychological space in which they leave the face-to-face world and momentarily immerse themselves into their cyberspace social reality. Their internet relationships can become a very significant feature of their lives, as with the avid user - although their e-mail worlds do not take on the same intensity as with avid users. Technical failures resulting in disconnection also doesn't stir up the same degree of anxiety.

The casual e-mail user does e-mail sporadically, maybe once a week, or less than that. For these users, e-mail is a curiosity, a toy to play with, an amusement for leisure time. They may enjoy tinkering with this form of communication - and may even establish some friends and colleagues through it. But e-mail has not become an important feature of their interpersonal world. Difficulties may arise when regular users - and especially avid users - begin e-mailing with casual users. There is a disparity in the perceived importance of developing the relationship via e-mail. The avid or regular user may be expecting more frequent exchanges, but does not receive them. Experienced users quickly recognize this disparity and adjust accordingly. The problem usually arises when casual user s misrepresents themselves: "Sure! I do e-mail all the time!" These casual users may misunderstand what experienced e-mailing is all about - or they naively are mislead by their "wannabe" inclinations.

E-mail usually is one of the first things a new internet user attempts. So the newbie e-mail user usually has just entered the world of cyberspace. These newbies don't understand the rules of the road or how things work. They may breach etiquette, like typing in caps, which is the text-talk equivalent of shouting. They don't fully understand the depth and complexity of the e-mail world. They don't yet appreciate its potential for developing relationships. Essentially, they don't know what they are getting into. Avid users often can spot a newbie very quickly. Some of these more experienced users enjoy taking the newbie under their wing. Other undesirable types may toy with or try to take advantage of the naive newbie. Eventually, the newbie differentiates into one of the other three types of e-mail users.



Writing Abilities and Styles

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, message formatting, 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. In that zone 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 launches 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 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 (see the section on transference). 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, abstract, and emotional expression, complexity of vocabulary and sentence structure, the organization and flow of thought - all reflect one's cognitive/personality style and influence how others 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.



Anatomy of an E-mail Message: Facets and Structure

An e-mail message can be dissected into seven components: (1) the sender's name as indicated in your inbox, (2) the subject line, as indicated in your inbox, (3) the greeting that introduces the body of the message, (4) the body of message, including quoted text, (5) the sign-off line and name, and, (6) the signature block. The body of the message is what most people consider the actual "message" itself. Surely, it is the most lengthy, complex, and changing aspect of the exchange between e-mail partners. However, the other components of the message also can be tiny gems of communication. Much meaning can be packed into those little nuggets. How those deceptively simple components of the message change over time may signal important changes in the relationship.

1. The Sender's Name

Most people set their e-mail username in their e-mail program and leave it that way. It reflects the ongoing identity that one wishes to present online. The name chosen usually is one's real name, a pseudonym, or a combined name (e.g., Bill and Martha Smith). Using one's real name indicates a wish to simply be oneself. It's a straightforward, "honest" presentation. Pseudonyms are more mysterious, playful approaches: "Can you guess who I am?" They may express some non-obvious or underlying aspect of the person's identity and self-concept. They may reveal unconscious motivating fantasies and wishes (or fears) about one's identity. A combined name is a "letting it be known" that you have a partner - that the two of you are sharing the e-mail program and may both be reading all the mail (which may significantly affect how others respond). When people change the username setting in their e-mail program, it reflects a significant change in how they wish to present their ongoing, online identity. Moving from a pseudonym to one's real name expresses the wish to drop the "mask" (albeit a meaningful mask). Changing the combined name to a single name is a move towards separation and individuation that invites more private, one-on-one dialogue.

2. The Subject Line

The subject line is a tiny microcosm unto itself. Often people use it to just summarize or introduce the major idea/s contained in the body of the message. But experienced e-mail users understand the more subtle techniques for communicating meaning and emotion in the titles they bestow to their e-mail. The subject line can lead into, highlight, or elaborate a particular idea in the message. It can ask a definitive question, shoot back a definitive answer, joke, tease, prod, berate, shout, whisper, or emote. Sometimes its meaning may blatantly or discreetly contradict the sentiment expressed in the body of the message. A creative application of caps, commas, slashes, parentheses, and other keyboard characters adds emphasis and complexity to the thoughts and emotions expressed in the subject line. Here are some examples illustrating these ideas:

and now for something completely different
What should I do?
the solution is....
loved it!
Jim! help, Help, HELP!!
I'm so impressed (yawn)
Have To Do This
Things afoot...
Even more/sorry
thanks for your compliment and support, really!
please read
guitar, our visit, money
OK folks, settle down
It's been fun, boys & girls ;-)
Bob / battles / techniques / bullshit

In an e-mail archive, examining the list of subject lines across the development of the relationship is like perusing the headlines of a newspaper over the course of months or years. It reflects the flow of important themes in the history of the e-mail encounter. These patterns and trends over time might reveal hidden or unconscious elements in relationship between the two people. For example, one interesting feature is the use of "re:" as a prefix to the subject line. For how many messages did the couple continue to click on "reply" and reuse the same subject? This might indicate the emotional intensity of that particular thread.

The use of "re:" versus creating a new subject line can be an interesting dynamic interchange between e-mail partners. Creating a new line is a bit like taking the lead in the relationship by introducing a new title for the interaction - like creating a headline for the story that is the ongoing dialogue. It's an attempt to conceptualize, summarize, and highlight what the person perceives as the most important feature of the conversation. Creating a new subject line calls into play the "observing ego" - that ability to step back and reflect on what is happening. It shows a sense of responsibility and ownership for the dialogue - in some cases maybe even an attempt to control the dialogue. In this fashion, some e-mail partners duel with each other via the subject line. Simply clicking on reply without creating a new message title may indicate less of an observing ego and more of a spontaneous reaction. It suggests a "I want to reply to what you said" mode of operation. Some people chronically fail to create a new subject line and persistently use "re:" They may be a bit passive in the relationship, or lazy. They may not feel that sense of responsibility, ownership, or control. If this isn't true, their partner may nevertheless perceive them as being that way.

Spammers will try to exploit the subject line in order to trick you into opening the message. Beware of subject headings written all in caps, embellished with asterisks and exclamation points, or containing overly friendly or seductive messages ("Just wanted to say hello...") - especially when you don't recognize the sender's name. If it looks and smells like spam, it's spam.

3. The Greeting

Similar to writing letters or meeting someone on the street, the conversation usually begins with a greeting of some sort. Different greetings convey slightly different emotional tones and levels of intimacy. It sets the mood for the rest of the message, and sometimes may contradict the tone of the message. Over the course of a batch of messages, the back-and-forth changes in the greeting can become a revealing little dance - sometimes playful, sometimes competitive. Who is being more polite, friendly, intimate, enthusiastic, emotional? Adding the person's name to the greeting - "Hi Pat," rather than simply "Hi" - always indicates a deeper level of intimacy - or, at the very least, the fact that you made the small extra effort to personalize the message.

Here is a sample of some greetings:

Dear Pat - A somewhat formal opening, highly reminiscent of letter writing. In fact, newbie e-mail users often fall back on this familiar way to start off a correspondence. I've rarely seen experienced users begin with "Dear" - except, perhaps, when approaching a stranger for whom respectful formality might be appropriate. In most cases, it's a bit too polite for the casual atmosphere that many associate with the Internet. Because "Dear" is associated with snail mail - an inferior mode of communicating, in the eyes of avid users - some people may frown upon it's use. They might view the sender as being naive about the social dynamics of e-mail.

Hello Pat - A more causal, friendly greeting, with a hint of politeness and respect. A very handy, all-purpose opener.

Hi Pat - A slightly more casual, friendlier greeting than "Hello." It's probably not appropriate for the first e-mail exchange with a stranger, unless you immediately want to set the tone of "friendliness among peers."

Hi Pat! / Hello Pat!! - A more enthusiastic salutation, almost like hugging or slapping the person on the back. There also can be an element of surprise or delight in the exclamation point - as if you just called the person on the phone and can hear in their "Hi!" how they happily recognize that it's you! The more exclamation points, the more enthusiasm - although a long row of exclamation points might be perceived as phony or contrived overkill.

Pat!!! - This one conveys an even higher level of enthusiasm, surprise, or delight - so much so that only and simply the companion's name gushes forth from one's consciousness.

Pat, - A very matter-of-fact, "let's get to the point" opening. Sometimes there's an almost ominous tone to this greeting, as if the sender is trying to get your attention in preparation for some unpleasant discussion.

Hey there! - A very informal greeting, usually reserved for friends. Although the recipient's name is omitted, it's assumed that the sender knows it's you.

Hey Dude! / Yo! - Another very informal hello reserved for friends, usually (but not always) between males. It conveys a feeling of camaraderie.

Greetings! - A sure sign that spam is coming at you, or perhaps a message from a colleague or friend who is trying to be a bit humorous by offering a deceptively "formal" hello.

Hi, / Hello, - Whereas the Hi is a bit more casual than the Hello, both of these greetings lack the intimate touch of including the recipients name. They come across as a bit flat or impersonal. Spammers and other people who are basically indifferent to who you are will top off the message with this lackluster intro.

No greeting at all is an interesting phenomenon that cuts both ways. In some cases, it may reveal that the sender is lazy, passive, or how he/she lacks any personal connection to you (as well as any desire for a personal connection). In some messages I've received of this type, I felt almost as if the sender perceived me as a computer program ready to respond their needs - with no identity or needs of my own.

On the other hand, no greeting may indicate the exact opposite scenario. The sender indeed feels connected to you - so much so that a greeting isn't required. She assumes you know that it's you who's on her mind. Or he never felt like he left the conversation and the psychological space he inhabits with you: so why inject a greeting into the message? In an ongoing, back-and-forth dialogue, there may be no greetings at all throughout a string of exchanged e-mails. In the face-to-face world, you don't say "hello" in the midst of an energetic discussion. In cyberspace, the same principle holds. Although each e-mail message looks like a letter that traditionally starts off with a greeting, it actually isn't. In many cases it is a segment of an ongoing conversation.

4. The Body of the Message

The body of the message is the most complex component of the e-mail. Messages can vary widely in length, organization, 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 who are compulsive may 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 may 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 may 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 frustration or boredom.

Planning versus Spontaneity - A carefully, empathically constructed e-mail sometimes lacks 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 them - 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 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...)

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*

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 the 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 that 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 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.


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 emotionally bland, ambiguous, maybe overly serious. 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, in many e-mail programs, places arrow marks > or vertical lines 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, business-like, or "for the record" 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. Some e-mail programs allow you to place vertical lines or arrow marks next to each line of quoted text, or the sender may place arrows at 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 his 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. Here is an example using arrows:

>> 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. My colleague Michael Fenichel aptly calls this a "cut and paste reality."

Rich Text - Many e-mail programs enable the person to control font type, size, color, centering, left and right justification, bold and italic styling. These options provide another dimension for creatively formatting the e-mail and expressing oneself. Bold print comes in handy for voice accentuation. Color can highlight mood - for example, conveying anger or jubilation. Different text colors and/or fonts also work effectively for indicating quoted text, especially when two or more people are cited within your message, with a different font and/or color for each person.

However, as in cuisine, overly rich text can make the reader queasy. A heavy mixture of fonts, colors, styling, and indentations becomes confusing, unpalatable. All creative keyboarding techniques require a light, sensitive hand - a delicate balance of expressive and straightforward communication.

Those eager for creative e-mails also need to know that not all e-mail programs or e-mail servers will be kind to their creations. Some programs and servers may not recognize the special formatting. A paragraph innovatively and beautifully formatted by the sender may be riddled with meaningless glitches in the reader's window. Or that part of the message may simply disappear. Essentially, the machines at both ends - and inbetween - speak different languages, resulting in these annoying e-mail translation errors. Before attempting rich text, it is wise to send a sample message to the recipient, to test out what can and can't be read.

5. The Sign-Off Line and Name

Whereas the greeting is the way people say hello and sign in, the sign-off line is the way they exit from their message. As with the greeting, the sign-off is a fingerprint revealing the status of the person's mood and state of mind - sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle. "Here's where I'm at as I say good-bye." A contrast between the greeting and the sign-off may be significant - as if writing the e-mail altered the person's attitudes and feelings. Across a series of messages, the sign-off lines may be a string of repartees between the partners that amplifies, highlights or adds nuance to their dialogue in the message bodies. The progression of exchanged sign-off lines may itself become an encapsulated, Morse-code dialogue between the partners. "Sincerely," "Regards" or other similar sign-offs are rather safe, all-purpose tools borrowed from the world of postal mail. They are formal, polite ways to exit. Some avid e-mailer users use them sparingly because they suggest a snail-mail mentality and a lack of appreciation for the creatively conversational quality of e-mail. Here are some examples of sign-off lines that are a bit more revealing of the person's state of mind and his/her relationship to the e-mail partner:

take care,
an unusually annoyed,
thanks for listening,
Live long and prosper,
just my 2 cents,
stay cool,
have fun!
still confused,
looking forward to hearing from you,
enough for now,

Almost invariably, the sender's name follows the sign-off line, which demonstrates how intrinsically connected the sign-off line is to the identity of the sender. Simply typing your real name is the easiest, most straightforward tactic. If the e-mail partners both belong to the same online community, they may have to make a conscious choice about whether to use their real names or their online usernames. The online name can be entertaining and revealing, but changing from that imaginary handle to your real name may be a gesture of honestly and intimacy - a kind of "coming out." Creatively playing with your sign-off name can be an another effective way to express your state of mind, some aspect of your identity, or your relationship to your e-mail partner. Usually this type of play only feels appropriate with friends, or it indicates that one wishes to be friendly, loose, and imaginative. Proclaiming their identification with net culture, people sometimes apply the common cyberspace practice of fusing two capitalized words to create a "neologistic name" for themselves. Here are some examples of playful sign-off names:

Kat :-)
Busy Guy
Sam (aka SupraSuds)
The Frozen Man

Leaving out the sign-off line and/or name may be an omission with meaning. It might suggest a curt, efficient, formal, impersonal, or even angry attitude about the conversation. The ending could appear especially bureaucratic or impersonal if the person inserts his signature block and nothing else. On the other hand, friends may leave out a sign-off line and name as a gesture of informality and familiarity. "You know it's me." They may assume that the conversation is ongoing - as in a face-to-face talk - so there's no need to type anything that suggests a good-bye.

6. The Signature Block

Many e-mail programs offer the option of creating a signature file or "block" that automatically will be placed at the bottom of your message (unless that feature is turned off). People usually place factual or identifying information into that file - such as their full name, title, e-mail address, postal address, institutional affiliation, phone number, etc. It's a prepackaged stamp indicating "who and where I am." What a person puts into that file reflects what they hold dear to their public identity. Some programs offer the feature of writing alternative signature files, which gives the person the opportunity to create several different fingerprints, each one tailored for a specific purpose. For example, one may be formal and factual, another more casual and playful. Each one is a slightly different slice of the person's identity. Because all signature blocks have a non-spontaneous, prepackaged feeling to them, friends often make a conscious effort to turn it off when writing to a cyberspace pal. In a sense, you are dropping your status and title while also assuming the person knows your e-mail address, phone number, etc. The first message in which the sig block is eliminated probably reflects the sender's move towards feeling more friendly and casual in the relationship. As with the sign-off line and name, a change in a person's sig block reflects a shift in their identity or in how they wish to present their identity.

Ambitious and creative e-mail users sometimes place an ASCII drawing or an abstract pattern into the sig file. It's an attempt to be artistic, which may or may not be successful. When it is, people often are impressed. "How'd she do that!?" It's not easy to create a good looking ASCII drawing. Producing an effective one is a public demonstration of one's artistic and technical skill.

According to traditional net culture, people also place quotes into their sig block. Sometimes the quotes are serious, humorous, intellectual, tongue-in-cheek, famous, or home-spun. Which quote a person chooses - and how they present it - can reveal an important slice of their personality, life style, or philosophy of life. Here are some examples:

I think..... therefore I am confused
Life is what happens when we're busy planning other things - J. Lennon
The respected man is the man that will ALWAYS remember where he came from........."
- yuujou - doryoku - shouri -
I need to.... get back in the arms of a good friend
Humorous redhead on the loose... be afraid, be VERY afraid! =)
life may be short, but it sure is wide

When the only tool one owns is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail. - Abraham Maslow

If I am not for myself,
Who will be for me?
And if I am only for myself,
What am I?
And if not now,

The way out is via the door. Why is it that no-one will use this method? -Confucius



An E-mail Make-Over

What follows is an example of a "before" and "after" message. The two are similar in terms of the surface content of what Susan is saying to Joe. However, the second one illustrates the variety of e-mail composition techniques discussed in the previous sections of this article. It shows a balance between spontaneity and thoughtful organization; empathic attentiveness to the recipient; and the expressive use of quoted text, caps, special characters, spacing, trailers, parenthetical thoughts and actions, and smileys. As such, it conveys an entirely different range of meanings and feelings that the first message:


Quoting text in e-mail is something we all have to learn at some point or another. No problem. If your e-mail program doesn't automatically set up a new message with the quoted text in it, there are other ways to do it. One way is like this. Open the e-mail I sent to you. Create a new (blank) e-mail to send to me. Use your mouse to select and copy the text from the e-mail I sent you. Insert that copied text into the new e-mail message. Add in whatever new text you want into the message to send to me. This is easy to do on a Mac. I think you're working on a PC, right? It should be pretty easy for you too, though the steps might be slightly different. Let me know how it works out. Have a great time on your vacation. We were supposed to leave for vacation last week, but our car broke down. Something to do with the transmission. It's at the dealers now being fixed. It will probably cost an arm and a leg. But that doesn't matter. You know us. We have lots of money.
- Susan


Hello Joe!

>>Working on the paper together through e-mail is a great idea. My trouble is that I don't know how to add onto your e-mail, though I've seen others respond to my e-mails by just writing below what I had written. I'm sure it's a1-2-3 type of thing, so if you give me a hand I'd really appreciate it. I'm such a dolt!<<

LOL! Hey! It's something we all have to learn at some point or another. No prob. If your e-mail program doesn't automatically set up a new message with the quoted text in it, there are other ways to do it. One way is like this:

- open the e-mail I sent to you
- create a new (blank) e-mail to send to me
- use your mouse to select and copy the text from the e-mail I sent you
- insert that copied text into the new e-mail message
- add in whatever new text you want into the message to send to me

Voila. This is easy to do on a Mac. I think you're working on a PC, right? It should be pretty easy for you too, though the steps might be slightly different. Let me know how it works out.

>> Otherwise all is going well here. We're headed to the beach for our vacation next week. We're looking forward to it. We need some time off from work.<<

Have a GREAT time! :-) .... (feeling jealous).... We were *supposed* to leave for vacation last week, but our car broke down. Something to do with the transmission. It's at the dealers now being fixed. It will probably cost an arm and a leg. But that doesn't matter. You know us....we.... uh... (cough)...have LOTS of money. ;-)

hands in holes in pockets,

Simply Susan
"Life without art isn't life."


Multimedia Enhancements

As e-mail technology has matured, we have access to more features to enhance our messages. Many programs make it easy to attach images, sounds, programs, and almost any type of document to the message. The recipient may perceive such attachments - especially images from friends - as little gifts piggybacked onto the e-mail. Large attachments may require a long download time, which might make the recipient annoyed. Because attachments often are perceived as "extras" - something in addition to the message, something unrequested and maybe unwanted - proper etiquette suggests asking ahead of time before sending it. Because computer viruses spread as attachments, such files can stir anxiety and suspicion, especially when the sender is unknown. Also, spam with graphics embedded into the message often contain image attachments. Given these potential problems with attachments, when people don't react to them as gifts, they perceive them as intrusions upon their e-mail territory.

Many e-mail programs enable senders to insert images directly into the body of the message, which adds another level of expressive complexity. Usually people insert pictures at the end of the message, so as not to disrupt the integrity of the message body. In that position, the image can serve as a visual appendix to an idea within the message, as a concluding comment, or even as a surprise the recipient only discovers after scrolling down to the end.

Senders add hypertext addresses into their message to provide a springboard for the recipient to jump from the message into the web. When e-mail programs enable these links to be "hot," simply clicking them within the message catapults the reader into a web browser and onto a web page. Such links create a swift and easy transition between private space and public space, almost as if the sender and reader are sitting side-by-side within the e-mail space, talking privately, but then are able to open a door to step out into a worldwide public area of information and entertainment.

Some e-mail programs also enable messages to display web page codes, complete with full page layout, graphics, and links. The message looks very similar to a web page, thus eliminating much of the distinction between private e-mail space versus public web space. This distinction is magnified by the fact that commercial e-mail tends to involve such elaborate formatting much more often than private e-mail between individuals.

As with e-mail containing rich text, multimedia e-mail may not translate well in all e-mail programs, especially older ones incapable of recognizing the special formatting. Inserted images disappear. A paragraph innovatively and beautifully formatted with html codes is riddled with meaningless glitches in the reader's window. Your computer crashes. The machines at both ends speak different languages, resulting in these e-mail translation errors that range from mild annoyances to major mishaps. Before attempting to send multimedia e-mail, it is wise to send a sample message to the recipient, to test out what can and can't be read.


Just Between You and Me: Private Language

Like any subculture, the world of e-mailing has developed a unique language. Having its own novel terms and expressions that outsiders don't understand gives any group a sense of distinctive identity. To be in the group is to be in the know. If you appropriately use the parlance, you are demonstrating your knowledge of and belonging to the subculture. The unique language also evolves for purely practical reasons. It makes communication more efficient. In the world of avid e-mail users, a variety of acronyms and abbreviations have developed. Many of these were borrowed from chat lingo. For example:

imho - in my humble opinion
btw - by the way
jk - just kidding
ppl - people
irl - in real life
fyi - for your information
brb - be right back
afk - away from keyboard

A private language also may develop between two people or among a small group of people who e-mail each other frequently. It may include unique acronyms, expressions, character symbols and words (neologisms) that only those people understand. The evolution of that private language reflects the evolving identity, cohesion, and intimacy of the dyad or group. Usually the language crystallizes around issues that are discussed frequently and therefore personally important to the e-mail partners.



Pacing: The Ebb and Flow of Mail

Because e-mail has an adjustable conversing speed, the pacing of message exchanges will vary over the course of an e-mail relationship. The excitement of getting to know each other - and enjoying each others company - will result in an increasing pace that eventually plateaus into a rate of exchange that feels comfortable to both partners. As a general rule, the more frequently people e-mail each other, the more important and intimate the relationship feels to them. Some people e-mail each other every day, or several times a day. Bursts in the intensity of the pace occur when hot topics are being discussed, when recent events in one's life need to be explained, or when work needs to be done. These bursts may reflect a sudden deepening of the intimacy in the relationship. Declines in the pace may indicate a temporary or longterm weakening of the bonds between the couple - either due to a growing disinterest in the relationship or distractions from other sectors of one's life (usually "real" life). Significant changes in the cadence always indicates a significant change in feelings, attitudes, or commitment.

When people become enthused about e-mail, they may expect that their partners will respond at a pace as intense as their own enthusiasm. They may even unconsciously experience the interaction as if it is a face-to-face encounter - and so, perhaps unconsciously, they are expecting an almost immediate reply. Experienced e-mail users understand that different people have different paces. Some do e-mail every day; some two or three times a week; some once a week or less. Even avid and regular users have slightly different rhythms. You adjust yourself accordingly. You settle into a tempo that is right for each relationship. You accept that tempo as a meaningful indication of what that relationship is about.

Drastic drops in the pace, or an apparent failure of the partner to respond at all, throws you into the "black hole" experience. The partner's silence may be a sign of anger, indifference, stubborn withdrawal, punishment, laziness, preoccupation with other things... But you don't know for sure. The ambiguity inherent in the no-reply easily can become a blank screen onto which we project our own expectations, emotions, and anxieties.



Transference: Seeing the Other Clearly

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 stemming from past relationships onto 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 because 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 ftf 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 ftf 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 an 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 - a developmentally primitive form of "object relations," some psychoanalytic thinkers would say. 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.



Keeping Record: The E-mail Archive

A big advantage of e-mail encounters over ftf ones is that you can keep an exact record of what was said. At your leisure you can reread and reflect on the exchanges between you and your e-mail partner. If two people only know each other via e-mail - and at least one of them saves all of the exchanges messages - we could even make the argument that the relationship has been preserved in its entirety. Often, however, a person only saves some of the messages, probably those that are especially meaningful - emotional high points, moments of intimacy, important personal information, or other milestones in the relationship. Comparing the messages saved by one person to those saved by the partner could reveal similarities and discrepancies in what each of them finds most important about the relationship. One person might savor humor, practical information, personal self-disclosures, emotional recollections, or intellectual debate - while the other may not. Saving mostly one's own messages, or mostly the other person's messages, may reflect a difference in focus on either self or other. The area of significant overlap in saved messages reflects the common ground of interest and attitude that holds the relationship together.

It's very possible that there might be a significant difference between partners in the number of saved messages. The person who saves less - or maybe none at all - may have a lower investment in the relationship. Or they may not be as self-reflective about relationships as people who wish to reread and think about what was said. On the other hand, that person may simply have less of a need to capture, preserve, or control the relationship. Some people like to "live in the moment." They may not feel a need to store away what was said... and that doesn't necessarily indicate less of an emotional involvement.

Unless you're simply searching for information (e.g., phone number, address), what prompts you to go back and read old messages may be a sign of something significant happening in the relationship or your reaction to it. Doubt, worry, confusion, anger, nostalgia? What motivates you to search your archive? The curious thing about rereading old messages (even if they are just a few days old) is that they sound different than they did the first time you read them. You see the old message in a new light, from a new perspective. You notice nuances that you did not see before. Or you discover that the emotions and meanings you previously detected were really your own projections and really nothing that the sender put there (i.e., your transference reaction). We are tempted to think that an e-mail archive is a factual record of what was said. In some ways it is. But a saved message also is a container into which we pour our own psyche. We invest it with all sorts of meanings and emotions depending on our state of mind at the moment.

Previously in this article, I discussed the use quoted text. Usually, one quotes lines from the most recent message received from the e-mail partner. If you have an e-mail archive, you also can quote lines from earlier messages, including messages from long ago. These recitations may have a dramatic impact on your partner. On the positive side, the person may be pleased to realize that you are saving her messages - in a sense, holding him in your memory, even cherishing her words. On the negative side, it can feel eerie seeing one's words revived from the distant past, especially when you don't quite remember when or in what context you said it. It's a reminder that the person has a record of you. The situation can be even more unnerving when you don't have a record of the message yourself, so you can't verify the accuracy of the quote. A slightly paranoid feeling seeps in. "Am I being deceived, held hostage?... Why didn't *I* save that message?" Of course, all of these negative reactions are amplified when the old quoted text is being thrown at you in an accusatory or hostile manner. At other times the remembrance feels benign and nostalgic.



Developmental History and Meeting FtF

Often there are several stages in the development of an e-mail relationship. First, the people must come in contact with each other. That may seem like a serendipitous or uneventful occurrence - they just "happened" to run into each other on the Internet, or that first round of e-mail involved some simple request for information. But often there is more going on below the surface. Although, theoretically, people can connect with everyone else on the Internet, they don't. They establish ongoing relationships with only a handful of people. Consciously - and often unconsciously - we filter through the hundreds and thousands of persona that scroll down our monitor and select out those people that have similar interests to ours, those that address our psychological and emotional needs... those that fit our transference dynamics. When reflecting on one of your ongoing e-mail relationships, it's interesting to open your archive and look up those first few messages that were exchanged. Exactly when and where did you meet? Exactly what was said? Those first few messages can reveal the needs and emotional dynamics that sparked the relationship.

As in all relationships, the momentum begins with those sparked dynamics and evolves from there. The people gradually reveal more about themselves to each other, which adds more layers of complexity onto the core dynamics that drew them together. The lack of face-to-face cues encourages them to discuss thoughts and feelings that they otherwise might not reveal - which helps solidify the bond between them. But filling in for that lack of face-to-face cues also deepens the relationship. Describing how one looks, for example, is a powerful way of saying, "I want you to see the real me." The same principle holds true for disclosing facts about your in-person life. Because cyberspace easily can be a world isolated from one's "real" life - a world where you can remain anonymous or take on an imaginative identity - revealing your actual identity is taken as a sign of intimacy and commitment. The more people start to share that kind of real-world information in their e-mail, the more the relationship deepens.

The developmental path in e-mail relationships is one that leads towards becoming more and more real to the other person. For the relationship to move beyond a certain point, the couple will want and need to have more real-time and face-to-face contact. They might try meeting in online chat or instant messaging, which can make the other person's temporal "presence" seem more powerful and thereby enhance the feeling of actually being together in real time. It also tests each other's commitment to the relationship, because you both have to be there at a specific time. If they have the technical skills, they might try communicating with video or audio streaming. They might attach pictures of themselves to their e-mail. An even bigger move forward is to step outside the sometimes invisible psychological boundary that "we are ONLINE friends." You break the cyberspace barrier by sending letters, photos, and gifts via postal mail.... or telephone the other person... or you take the final, inevitable step of actually meeting your friend in-person.

Each of these moves towards becoming more real to the e-mail partner is a significant turning point in the relationship. The thoughts and feelings that are discussed during and after each of these more intimate contacts builds new dimensions to the relationship. This is especially true of taking that big step forward by meeting your e-mail companion in-person. Both of you are taking that decisive step out of cyberspace and into the face-to-face encounter. It can be a bit anxiety-provoking. Will he be what I've imagined him to be? What will she think of me? Why did we decide to meet each other NOW in the relationship? What are we both expecting from the rendezvous? All of these are important questions.

Some experienced online people feel they can suspend any expectations about what others will actually be like when they meet in-person. They claim that they are rarely surprised by that real world encounter. Others say that got to know someone so well through e-mail that meeting in person seemed very smooth and natural. In many cases, however, finally standing toe to toe with the other person can be a real eye-opener. The companion is not exactly what you expected. They look or talk differently than you had imagined. Some aspect of their personality is very different than you had imagined. Due to the lack of f2f cues and the resulting disinhibition effect, people do not act the same in e-mail as they do in-person. That difference may be striking when you meet. On the other hand, the contrast in how they appear on and offline may be the result of the false impression you had formed of them.

Standing toe to toe, you have the opportunity to test out the image of your companion that you had created in your mind. While conversing via e-mail, how did you accurately perceive this person? Where did your perceptions go astray? By answering those questions, you may come to understand how your own mindset shaped the image you had formed. You may have wanted or needed the person to be a certain way. Steered by your past intimate relationships, you may have expected them to be a certain way. Or you may have completely overlooked something in the e-mail that couldn't be ignored in the ftf encounter. Stated in a nutshell, meeting the person gives you the opportunity to understand and work through your transference reactions.

Meeting in-person often will deepen the relationship. Afterwards the couple discuss, assimilate, reminisce, and cherish the encounter. They build on it. They share the ways in which the meeting confirmed and altered their perceptions of each other. As such, ideally, they help each other understand and work through their transference reactions. But the in-person meeting doesn't always enhance the relationship. People may be disappointed after the meeting. The companion was not what they had hoped for. This unfortunate outcome may indicate that transference wishes were strong and very off target.

Some e-mail companions may not have the opportunity to meet each other. In some cases, the relationship still thrives - though there may be periods when the conversation dwindles. In other cases, the e-mail contact fades away for good. A face-to-face meeting may have been needed to energize the relationship, or perhaps it was inevitable that the relationship would evaporate.

Some people choose NOT to phone or meet in-person their e-mail companion, even though such meetings could be arranged. They prefer to limit the relationship to cyberspace. Perhaps they fear that their expectations and hopes will be dashed, or they feel more safe and comfortable with the relative anonymity of e-mail contact. They may be relishing the online fantasy they have created for themselves. Or they simply enjoy the e-mail relationship as it is and have no desire the develop the relationship any further. In all cases, choosing not to increase face-to-face contact with the e-mail partner is a choice not to make the relationship more intimate, well-rounded, or reality-based.


Dual Relationships

Experienced e-mailers often have friends and colleagues with whom they converse in-person and via e-mail on a regular basis. These dual relationships can be tricky. Sometimes the two realms become a bit dissociated from each other. The relationship starts to operate on two different psychological levels. Due to the lack of ftf cues in e-mail, thoughts and feelings that are difficult to express in-person may surface online. Those disclosures may occur consciously or unconsciously. Unless those disclosures are quickly brought into the ftf relationship, a gap starts to develop between the online encounters and the in-person meetings. It may become more and more difficult to speak in-person about what was said online. The ftf relationship may become uncomfortable, or feel stiff and shallow. It's best to prevent this uneasy situation before it starts. Even under the most benign of circumstances, you may experience a tiny psychological hurdle that needs to be jumped in order to bring the online encounter into the ftf encounter, and vice versa. But do jump it. The most rewarding outcome is an integrated in-person and e-mail relationship.



E-mail Stress

Although e-mail certainly stands near the top of the list of important modern inventions, it comes with a price, as do many if not all inventions. In this complex and harried technological world we live in, e-mail can add to the stress of everyday living. A variety of factors contribute to e-mail induced stress:

Social and information overload: People can be overwhelmed by the fast pace and heavy bombardment of incoming messages, often from many different types of people with many different agendas, and saturated with all sorts of information, some valuable, some useless, all needing to be evaluated as important or not. This social and work multitasking can overload a person's ability to cope.

Social ambiguity: As discussed earlier in this article, the missing face-to-face cues of e-mail makes it potentially ambiguous. Even sophisticated e-mail users will lapse into moments of miscommunication. It's very easy to misunderstand what others mean, resulting in worried efforts to decipher their possible intentions. That social ambiguity tends to draw out and heighten one's own anxieties and insecurities.

Disintegrated work/leisure boundaries: For some people the borders between fun, socializing, and work break down in e-mail communication. Messages from family, friends, lovers, coworkers, and bosses all stack up next to each other in the inbox. You move swiftly, easily from one message to another. To make matters worse, many people can access e-mail at home or at work. When the boundaries between work and leisure break down, so does the distinction between stress and relaxation, sometimes to the detriment of relaxation.

Emotional Intensity: Due to the disinhibition effect, people may quickly open up and reveal a great deal about themselves in e-mail. In some cases, they may regret their self-disclosures, feeling exposed and vulnerable, even shame. An excessively rapid and even "false" intimacy may develop that later destroys the relationship when one or both people feel overwhelmed, anxious, or disappointed.

Tenuous privacy: Privacy in e-mail communication is tenuous at best, although people often perceive it as private. An e-mail message is a record of a conversation that can be accessed by a third party, forwarded to a third party, or unintentionally sent to a third party or an entire group. The disruption of perceived privacy feels like a personal violation if initiated by someone else, and may result in severe humiliation when the person accidentally sends the message to the wrong person or group. Some people live with a chronic, low level paranoia about invisible and perhaps hostile people listening in.

Black hole experiences: As discussed earlier, receiving no reply from an e-mail companion makes a person wonder. Did I say something wrong? Am I being rejected? Did something bad happen to him? Yet another feature of the ambiguity of cyberspace, this black hole experience tends draws out one's anxieties and insecurities.

Spam trickery and disruption: Unfortunately, e-mail spam has reached voluminous proportions. Spammers lie to us, attempt to induce guilt and anxiety in us, pretend to be someone they are not - any trick they can think of to get us to open their message. Not to mention the fact that they bombard us with unwanted soapbox pleas as well as pornographic thinking. This pervasive problem heightens suspicion and even paranoia in some users - a distrust not just of e-mail, but of the Internet in general. At the very least, spam throws noise in the channel of e-mail communication, making it difficult to find and focus on one's e-mail relationships. Some people even believe that spam has broken the e-mail system beyond repair, which, if true, casts some doubt on the reliability and survival of e-mail relationships.


Cross-Cultural E-mail

On the positive side, the beauty of e-mail is that you have the opportunity to contact people from around the world. The challenge, however, is that people from around the world have different customs for conversing and developing relationships. At least some of the ideas discussed in this article may be culture-bound, applying mostly to Western, European, or specifically American people (which I am). A good rule of thumb in conversing with folks from other lands is to be appropriately polite, friendly, and as clear as possible in what you write. Stretch your e-mail empathy muscles. Unless you're very sure of your relationship with the person, avoid colloquialisms, slang, humor, innuendos, and especially subtle attempts at cynicism and sarcasm, which can be difficult to convey in TextTalk even under the best of circumstances. It's much safer to start off polite and later loosen up as the relationship develops than it is to inadvertently commit a faux pas, find out that you indeed committed a faux pas, and then try to patch up the damage. Despite the cultural differences, the delight of doing international e-mail is discovering that there *is* a universal e-mail language. You'll feel a warm tingle of camaraderie when someone from a foreign land types you a :-)


See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

TextTalk: Communicating with typed text chat
Hypotheses about online text relationships
Extending a work group into cyberspace
Conflict in Cyberspace: How to resolve conflict online
Subtlety in multimedia chat
Coping with spam

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