Week 112

Maddie discusses the process of writing to strangers.

Writing to strangers

One of the most intimidating things I have to do now and again, both at work and outside of work, is writing to people I don’t know. There is something about contacting people in writing that can be scarier than in person.

In person it is far easier to correct yourself, and to read how your communication approach is working through the other person’s behavior and reactions. This is especially the case upon meeting someone for the first time, at which point you’re still trying to figure him or her out. First-time conversations are constant revisions of strategy, in terms of language used, but also in sentiments expressed and body language. I have little trouble doing this; I usually enjoy it. In writing, these revisions are not as readily available, and while the outcome may be good, the process can be stressful.

An even scarier situation is where you want to make a good impression on somebody you don’t know. The scariest of all goes one step further: you also want or need something from the other person. There may be a benefit for them too, but ultimately you want them to do you a favor. Even if you have the best of intentions and your request is not at all unreasonable, this can feel uncomfortable, or even grimy.

This situation can be embarrassing, though quite often unjustifiably so. I’ve decided that at least for me the embarrassment is inevitable, and that as long as my intentions were good, and I tried my best to be polite (but not too polite) and friendly (but not too friendly), I don’t need to feel ashamed about contacting this person. And should things go pear-shaped and my words are wildly misinterpreted, I can always do as various GOP politicians have been doing of late, and say that ‘I felt it in my heart’ that I had to say the things I said. (I jest.)

What further complicates this matter, and as a linguist I’m perhaps a little too tuned in to these things, is that different languages/cultures deal with these situations completely differently. In Irish and British English at least, the tendency when writing to someone for something you need or want is to make yourself smaller, apologizing, using conditionals (‘would you please,’ ‘it would be very helpful if,’ ‘if you wouldn’t mind, could you’) and plenty of pleases and thank-yous. The unfortunate thing about this technique is that it can come off as disingenuous or even passive-aggressive. In German it seems to be more acceptable to be carefully polite, but still direct about your wishes. Since I write in these and a bit of my first language, American, it can be complicated to respect the respective traditions.

I have a sort of mental decision tree that I traverse in order to decide whether to, and if so how to, write to a stranger. This is a strategy still very much in development, and it certainly has its shortcomings. (Feel free to suggest improvements.)

  1. Do I need to contact this person at all?
    No? Then don’t, unless 2. is the case. Especially if it’s to ask them to do work you could really have done yourself. That’s when things get properly embarrassing.
    Yes? Then proceed with 3.

  2. Do I want to contact this person?
    No? If you don’t need to and you don’t want to, then what are you doing here?
    Yes? Proceed with 3.

  3. Do I want to contact this person to get to know them better? Or, do I only wish to thank or congratulate this person, or show appreciation?
    No? Proceed with 4.
    Yes? Write. Be quick, don’t overthink (but reread to be sure your message is clear), don’t throw out the draft or leave it sitting around for ages out of shyness. The person may not read your message, or may not care, but chances are that he or she will be happy to have made an impression on someone. And there’s even a small chance that it could be hugely encouraging, and really make a difference. Who knows, perhaps you’ll even get to work together on some project in the future.

  4. Do I want something from them but don’t really mind if I don’t get it?
    No? Proceed with 5.
    Yes? Ask away, but do so out of a genuine appreciation, and figure out a way that the thing you want could be of use to them too. Don’t be presumptuous, ask very nicely, and explain the situation and your motivations. If the motivations aren’t reasonable, don’t write.

  5. Do I need something, and this person may be able to help, or may know someone who could help?
    No? Then unfortunately the solution isn’t in this tree, and you’ll have to figure out something new.
    Yes? If contacting out of necessity, make sure beforehand that you are not able to get what you need on your own, and that there aren’t people you already know who can help, since these are usually more likely to respond. Once that is established, .

In higher-risk situations, I tend to get someone else to look over my note, especially if it’s in a foreign language, to make sure I haven’t said anything unwittingly that is inappropriate or ambiguous.

Of course the whole process of writing to a stranger is even more complex than all of this. But I think discussing the complexities can help identify which concerns are justified and which ones can be safely ignored. It can also help in figuring out whether or not the point of the conversation is a worthwhile one, or if it could be adapted to produce more interesting results.

Author: Maddie

Maddie is a strategist and researcher. She spends much of her time on the think tank side of Third Wave, and enjoys getting into the details of many different topics at once. Through this foraging for information, she finds ways to apply knowledge from one field in new, seemingly disparate ones, both in client work and other research. She holds an interdisciplinary BA in Computer Science, Linguistics and German, and has previously worked at VCCP and at the Science Gallery in Dublin.