E-mail Tip #10 - Visualize the Person
Most of the e-mails you write are to people you know. You can visualize each in your mind as you write. It is almost as if the recipient is in the room with you as you compose your note. If you know the receiver well, you can picture him or her in different moods. Suppose you have a touchy e-mail with some input that may be upsetting to the receiver. Picture that person in your mind as already highly annoyed by something before opening your note. What sort of reaction is your note likely to evoke? That visualization might help you soften the tone of your note to make it appear less like a grenade. Statistically, the reader will be in his or her "normal" mood when receiving your note, and it will appear totally benign. The trouble with statistics is that there are always outlying data points to consider. In case you catch the reader in a bad mood, you are still protected.
What happens if you do not know the individual by sight? This is occurring more frequently as virtual teams deal with new members. Also, the trends in blogging and general business globalization have all of us interfacing in cyberspace with people we have never met. If this is a one-time inquiry, just assume you are dealing with a reasonable individual who is currently severely time-challenged, and you probably will be on the right track. You can conduct business with that posture to start and let the tone of conversation guide the interface.
There is an increasing use of webcams, which allow you to view the other person if the conversation is interactive rather than asynchronous. If you are sending a regular e-mail, you will need to use your imagination to visualize your reader. In most situations, it is easy to get a real image of your partners, if they are willing. Camera phones make it easy to send an image. Cameras on computers can give real time inserts in the screen so you can actually view the true body language of the other person, including movement, as you type. Also, most blogs and personal web pages have photos of the individual. These pictures can help your online communication immensely because the image helps you speak to the other person as a whole person rather than as a string of words.
I believe that in the absence of an actual picture, people gravitate to some form of image as they communicate online: eventually, a virtual image of an imaginary face is linked with the name if there is no other data.
Forming a vision of the other person is also common in online education. As a teacher in the online environment, I have been fascinated by this area. Every day I interface with students I have never seen. I have no idea what they look like, or sometimes even their gender. There have been many incidents where I have worked with a student for several weeks under the assumption that this student was a woman, only to find out he was a man, or vice versa. It keeps me on my toes to remain gender neutral where possible. Most of the time the first name indicates gender, but be careful. Some names, like "Sam" or "Alex" can be either male or female. This is particularly true with nicknames. Do not assume someone named "Rob" is a male. Is a person named "Lumbala" a male or female? It would be wise not to assume.
After many notes back and forth with an individual, I start to form a mental image of the person. I know it is not accurate, but it helps me make a mental connection with that person by using visualization when conversing in cyberspace. As I get to know the person better, there are small clues that help me build a composite image of the person in my mind.
I tried an experiment with a student once that illustrates this point. We were discussing the idea of picturing the receiver in your mind's eye. I let her know that I had already formed a mental picture of her. She wanted me to describe her based on my mental picture. I wrote back that she was in her mid 30's, slender but not skinny, with an athletic build. I saw her as 5'6" tall, with medium length hair of a light color, but not blond. I mentioned that she was viewed as having a "pretty" face with one special feature. Her nose was beautifully shaped but it was small - almost too small for the rest of her face.
She wrote back, and was blown away. She was a young mother of one who was very active athletically. She was medium height, and her hair was light brown and straight - medium length. She was always considered very good looking, but people had commented about her "little button nose" all her life. She wondered how I knew all that detail, since we had not shared any of it overtly. Honestly, it was all just a composite of my impressions as we had interfaced over several weeks.
By no means do I claim to be "cybervoyant." Probably my visualization was simply a result of lucky guesses. However, I do claim there is some information that slips in subconsciously. It would be a fun experiment to have a lineup with 12 people, to see if it was possible to pick out a person you have known only through cyber-talk. I suspect it would be difficult, but you might do better than random chance.
When you are communicating online, you are really interacting with the essence of the person. We really do that in any form of communication, but it is more pronounced in e-mail because we do not have the illusion of physical appearance getting in the way.