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How to Email a Stranger

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How to Email a Stranger
How to Email a Stranger

    Way back in July of this year, I suggested that one way to add kick to a research paper was to consult an expert. A lot of people disagree with this, imagining, I think, a flood of sloppy emails from students begging the experts to do their homework for them.

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    That was never my intention, of course — I’ve received far too many of those sorts of emails myself! Emailing an expert — or anyone you don’t know personally — to ask for assistance or input requires some finesse, and done well it’s far from the easy way out. You are, after all, asking someone to take on a task that they don’t need to take on; unless you give them a compelling reason to be interested in you and your project, they have nothing to gain by helping you.

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    So your first order of business is to give them something to gain, a reason to put themselves out for you. And you need to gain their confidence that their input is not going to be wasted or misrepresented. In short, you have to sell yourself and your project.

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    Here’s how:

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    • Do your homework. Only contact someone if you’re very clear about who they are and how they can help you. Read their bio, learn about their work, and find out as much as you can about what they’re doing now — it does no good to email, say, a physicist about research she did 30 years ago and has since recanted. This means know your topic, too — don’t email someone with basic questions that could be easily looked up on Wikipedia.
    • Offer something of value. You’re asking for something — be sure to offer something in return. Your insight into their work, an interesting observation on the relationship between what they do and what you’re doing (or what someone else has done), a description of what you’re doing that will excite them, whatever, so long as it makes helping you valuable.
    • Be clear about what you want. Don’t make them guess what you’re asking of them — say it loud, say it proud! Even if you’re only writing to open a channel of communication, say it.
    • Offer your skills. Again, make the transaction valuable to the person you’re writing to by offering your future assistance. Perhaps you can help them with a thorny problem, provide some piece of information, even volunteer your labor on a project.
    • Introduce yourself. Don’t forget to say who you are and what you’re doing! Not just “I’m a student” or “I’m a designer” or whatever you are — say something useful about yourself that gives a sense of your personality. Don’t ramble on and on, just say enough to personalize your email.
    • Explain where you got their email address. Getting email from strangers can be disconcerting, so let your contact know how you found them: a university directory, met them at a conference, used their corporate website, looked their homepage up online, or whatever.
    • Don’t insult or threaten. I’m always surprised at how many people ask for help by challenging, insulting, or even threatening the person they expect to help them out. Needless to say, don’t do this. You’re asking a favor from someone with no obligation to grant it; abusive language will only get your email deleted.
    • Don’t beg either. Be confident. If you make sure to write a compelling and sensible email that offers something valuable to its reader (even if that’s just the prospect of an interesting correspondence), you’re not imposing. There’s no reason to apologize or put yourself down. Even if the person you’re writing holds a position quite a bit above your own, approach them as an equal, a colleague — and expect the same in return. That is, don’t work to maintain a relationship with someone who is incapable of treating you as respectfully as you treat them.

    Be ready to accept a negative response, or even no response at all. People are busy and can’t always drop everything to take on a new project, no matter how small or how interesting. And there are still some people who fret over their perceived status and distinction, and will be affronted by your presumption to relate to them as an equal.

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    When that happens, accept refusal gracefully and move on. Time will deal with them — we live in an increasingly networked world, and the rules are changing. Distinctions of prestige and expertise are mattering less and less unless backed by the willingness to share and connect.

    Most people recognize this, though, and if you approach them with respect and willingness to share, they will respond in kind. While this advice could apply just as easily to writing a letter (does anyone still do that?) in today’s age, email is king — it’s quicker, easier to respond to, and immediately available. So go ahead and take a chance — if you follow these tips, you have nothing to lose but a few minutes of your time..

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    Last Updated on November 18, 2021

    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

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    10 Proven Ways to Judge a Person’s Character

    We all fall into the trap of judging a person’s character by their appearance. How wrong we are! All too often, the real character of the person only appears when some negative event hits them or you. Then you may see a toxic person emerging from the ruins and it is often a shock.

    A truly frightening example is revealed in the book by O’Toole in Bowman called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us. A perfectly respectable, charming, well dressed neighbor was found to have installed a torture chamber in his garage where he was systematically abusing kidnapped women. This is an extreme example, but it does show how we can be totally deceived by a person’s physical appearance, manners and behavior.

    So, what can you do? You want to be able to assess personal qualities when you come into contact with colleagues, fresh acquaintances and new friends who might even become lifelong partners. You want to know if they are:

    • honest
    • reliable
    • competent
    • kind and compassionate
    • capable of taking the blame
    • able to persevere
    • modest and humble
    • pacific and can control anger.

    The secret is to reserve judgment and take your time. Observe them in certain situations; look at how they react. Listen to them talking, joking, laughing, explaining, complaining, blaming, praising, ranting, and preaching. Only then will you be able to judge their character. This is not foolproof, but if you follow the 10 ways below, you have a pretty good chance of not ending up in an abusive relationship.

    1. Is anger a frequent occurrence?

    All too often, angry reactions which may seem to be excessive are a sign that there are underlying issues. Do not think that every person who just snaps and throws his/her weight around mentally and physically is just reacting normally. Everyone has an occasional angry outburst when driving or when things go pear-shaped.

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    But if this is almost a daily occurrence, then you need to discover why and maybe avoid that person. Too often, anger will escalate to violent and aggressive behavior. You do not want to be near someone who thinks violence can solve personal or global problems.

    2. Can you witness acts of kindness?

    How often do you see this person being kind and considerate? Do they give money to beggars, donate to charity, do voluntary work or in some simple way show that they are willing to share the planet with about 7 billion other people?

    I was shocked when a guest of mine never showed any kindness to the weak and disadvantaged people in our town. She was ostensibly a religious person, but I began to doubt the sincerity of her beliefs.

    “The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.”

    Abigail Van Buren

    3. How does this person take the blame?

    Maybe you know that s/he is responsible for a screw-up in the office or even in not turning up on time for a date. Look at their reaction. If they start blaming other colleagues or the traffic, well, this is an indication that they are not willing to take responsibility for their mistakes.

    4. Don’t use Facebook as an indicator.

    You will be relieved to know that graphology (the study of that forgotten skill of handwriting) is no longer considered a reliable test of a person’s character. Neither is Facebook stalking, fortunately. A study showed that Facebook use of foul language, sexual innuendo and gossip were not reliable indicators of a candidate’s character or future performance in the workplace.

    5. Read their emails.

    Now a much better idea is to read the person’s emails. Studies show that the use of the following can indicate certain personality traits:

    • Too many exclamation points may reveal a sunny disposition
    • Frequent errors may indicate apathy
    • Use of smileys is the only way a person can smile at you
    • Use of the third person may reveal a certain formality
    • Too many question marks can show anger
    • Overuse of capital letters is regarded as shouting. They are a definite no-no in netiquette, yet a surprising number of  people still use them.

    6. Watch out for the show offs.

    Listen to people as they talk. How often do they mention their achievements, promotions, awards and successes? If this happens a lot, it is a sure indication that this person has an over-inflated view of his/her achievements. They are unlikely to be modest or show humility. What a pity!  Another person to avoid.

    7. Look for evidence of perseverance.

    A powerful indicator of grit and tenacity is when a person persists and never gives up when they really want to achieve a life goal. Look for evidence of them keeping going in spite of enormous difficulties.

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    Great achievements by scientists and inventors all bear the hallmark of perseverance. We only have to think of Einstein, Edison (who failed thousands of times) and Nelson Mandela to get inspiration. The US Department of Education is in no doubt about how grit, tenacity and perseverance will be key success factors for youth in the 21st century.

    8. Their empathy score is high.

    Listen to how they talk about the less fortunate members of our society such as the poor, immigrants and the disabled. Do you notice that they talk in a compassionate way about these people? The fact that they even mention them is a strong indicator of empathy.

    People with zero empathy will never talk about the disadvantaged. They will rarely ask you a question about a difficult time or relationship. They will usually steer the conversation back to themselves. These people have zero empathy and in extreme cases, they are psychopaths who never show any feelings towards their victims.

    9. Learn how to be socially interactive.

    We are social animals and this is what makes us so uniquely human. If a person is isolated or a loner, this may be a negative indicator of their character. You want to meet a person who knows about trust, honesty and loyalty. The only way to practice these great qualities is to actually interact socially. The great advantage is that you can share problems and celebrate success and joy together.

    “One can acquire everything in solitude, except character.”

    Stendhal

     10. Avoid toxic people.

    These people are trying to control others and often are failing to come to terms with their own failures. Typical behavior and conversations may concern:

    • Envy or jealousy
    • Criticism of partners, colleagues and friends
    • Complaining about their own lack of success
    • Blaming others for their own bad luck or failure
    • Obsession with themselves and their problems

    Listen to these people talk and you will quickly discover that you need to avoid them at all costs because their negativity will drag you down. In addition, as much as you would like to help them, you are not qualified to do so.

    Now, having looked at some of the best ways to judge a person, what about yourself? How do others see you? Why not take Dr. Phil’s quiz and find out. Can you bear it?

    Featured photo credit: Jacek Dylag via unsplash.com

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