Who Do You Say You Are?

When We Write We Should Ask Ourselves What Personas We Are Projecting.

By Thomas J. Roach

As more work is performed online and even remotely, the image our co-workers have of us becomes more defined by our writing and less by what we look like, how we dress and what kind of small talk we make.

Those of us who spend a significant part of our days reading and sending emails are essentially writers. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote for five or six hours every day; the average office worker spends two to three hours, and a growing percentage are approaching Hemingway’s watermark.

The main difference between authors and people we interact with every day is that our perception of authors is derived solely from the clues they leave for us in their work.

The most successful authors carefully compose those clues and create a persona: that is they don’t just create characters in a story, they also compose an implied personality for the character who is telling the story.

Good Exercise
It might be a good exercise for all of us who spend the national average of 12 hours a week or more writing emails to ask ourselves what personas we are projecting. What are the themes that run through our emails? What clues have we dropped that indicate our view of our companies, our professions, or of the world itself?

A very basic question to ask is, am I coming across optimistic or pessimistic? If you are writing about a problem, do you see it as something that happily can be fixed or as another example of the downward spiral of a lost cause?

Another basic question one might ask is, what seems more important to me, the person I am writing to, or the subject I am writing about? In France, Parisians start every conversation with bonjour – hello.

If American tourists ask French store clerks questions without first saying bonjour, they are seen as being rude, and they often get rude responses.

Even in the United States, before email, all letters started out with an affectionate “Dear so and so.” Now look at your last few emails; did you even say, “Hi,” or did you just type the person’s name and go straight to your question or comment?

Other Considerations
Other considerations for the professional persona might be expertise, cooperativeness, kindness, efficiency, appreciation, anger, frustration, creativity and sincerity. Experts don’t guess; they stick to things they can verify.

Those who are kind give others the benefit of the doubt. Efficient people don’t bore us with minutia. Those who are appreciative recognize other people’s contributions.

Angry and frustrated people complain. Creative people might complain, but they will do it in an amusing way. And sincere people don’t mask their selfishness with phony compliments. What image are you intentionally or unintentionally creating for yourself?

Aristotle said the appearance of our character is conveyed in three ways: our knowledge, our honesty and our goodwill. Business communication is all about knowledge.

Essentially our work-related emails are exchanges of information. Honesty trumps knowledge, however, because if you can’t be trusted, the information you provide is useless.

Then there is goodwill. Goodwill is the ultimate test of character because we are human beings first: we don’t live to work, we work to live, and our tacit acknowledgement of that creates the fraternity that is the engine that motivates us and that is the hallmark of the most successful business cultures.

Take some time and read back through your sent email box and discover your persona. John Steinbeck wrote with sympathetic humor. Toni Morrison writes with descriptive detail. Hemingway was known for understatement. Mark Twain was a clever realist. Sylvia Plath was confessional. Bob Dylan turned out to be a cynic. Who are you?

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].