Email Like a Cat

March 2, 2015

For those few among us who still use email and who basically do not, and never will, have a clue about texting, messaging, Twittering, twattering, blah blah blah... Mentioning cats in a post title may just seem like click bait, but in fact these domestic companions are extrusions of our human souls. They have much to tell us about using email to our advantage.

I am someone who sends lots of emails. Too many emails. I also respond instantly when other people send an email to me. And truth be told, I spew interminably in my emails.

While one might reasonably assume this superior level of responsiveness is a good thing -- implying a loyalty to friends and family and a professional business attitude -- in reality the impact of being a responsive fool turns out to be perversely negative. In both personal and work settings, and perhaps unlike with texting, an overly friendly and chatty email personal can produce the opposite of the intended effect.

Like it or not, relationships are about power, leverage, and advantage. In face-to-face conversations, both non-verbal and verbal communication are often about positioning yourself in relation to others, so that you can achieve your goals and reinforce your sense of yourself. That doesn't mean people have to be dicks. But confidence surely matters in self-presentation.

Oddly, power dynamics play out differently via email. There is no physical presence and no spoken words. So power presents itself by holding back. In reviewing email relationship dynamics, you may have noticed that the advantage often seems to accrue to the person who is most aloof. Who responds rather than initiates. Who responds slowly rather than quickly. Who uses fewer words rather than more words. The effect is to communicate relative indifference. People who initiate email conversations, respond instantly, and are overly verbose in their email threads communicate anxiety and dependence and a perhaps too-eager desire to please.

To use email to your advantage, you need to recognize that it is not just a means of communication. It is a tactic and part of a larger presentation strategy. I'm not suggesting you should never initiate conversations with other people. I'm also not suggesting you not respond with reasonable dispatch or be so clipped in your replies that you sound brusque or unfriendly.

Clearly all relationships are ultimately about giving, as well as taking. You cannot meet the needs of others without a caring, solicitous persona. But particularly with email, the flip side holds true, as well. In the absence of nonverbal cues and tonal signaling, it becomes even more important in email relationships to communicate confidence and a professionally styled regal dignity. There is simply too much opportunity for people to misread your intentions and your state of mind. So you need continually to balance those two goals -- being caring and solicitous, while also projecting confidence and dignity -- in your email outreach.

Try this exercise. Think about people who email as either dogs or cats in relation to their owners. Dogs bound up to their owners, love attention, wag their tails, jump around, bark happily, follow their owners about the house, lick their owners in the crotch, and generally make it clear 24/7 how much they love and need their owners.

Cats could generally give a shit about their owners. They want their owners to feed them, empty their litter boxes, open the door for them, and otherwise stay the hell out of their way. They are not rude. But their relationship with their owners is a practical relationship. Let's call it a "professional" relationship. That's why dogs drool and cats rule.

Consider whether in your email conversations you are a dog or a cat. I am a dog trying to become a cat. If you think you are a cat, no worries. But if you recognize dog-like qualities in your communication style, think about ways you can assume more of a "cat" persona.