ORLANDO, Feb. 5, 2004 - Online romantics trying to win over valentines and businesspeople seeking to impress colleagues and clients may get some help from University of Central Florida research looking into how people form opinions about others through e-mail.
Professor Michael Rabby of UCF's Nicholson School of Communication and graduate student Amanda Coho want to find out what messages and phrases are most likely to make people believe that someone who is e-mailing them is, among other things, trustworthy, eager to help others and willing to admit to making mistakes.
"E-mail communication has impacted so much of our lives, but it's still a pretty understudied area," Rabby said. "We're now looking more closely at the messages that impact people the most. If I want to show you that I always go out of my way to help people in trouble, what messages would I send to convey that? In business, if I want to show that I'm compassionate, how would I do that?"
Early results of Rabby's and Coho's research show that people generally develop favorable opinions of someone with whom they're communicating only via e-mail or instant messages. Rabby said it's easier to make a favorable impression in part because people can choose to present only positive information about themselves.
Rabby and Coho will present their preliminary findings Feb. 16 at the Western States Communication Association annual conference hosted by the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. The association members are mainly faculty and students; other members include professionals such as lawyers and journalists.
Since the 2003 spring semester, Rabby has divided students in his Communication Technology and Change classes into pairs and asked them to exchange five e-mail messages with their partners. In almost all of the cases, the students did not know each other and were forming first impressions based on the e-mail messages and, sometimes, instant messages.
After they exchanged the e-mail messages, the students filled out surveys rating themselves and their partners in a variety of categories, such as whether they're likely to go out of their way to help someone in trouble and whether they practice what they preach. In most cases, the students gave their partners higher ratings than themselves.
The students also re-examined e-mail messages written by their partners and highlighted specific phrases or sections that caused them to form opinions. In some cases, direct statements such as "I am independent" led to conclusions, while other opinions were based on more anecdotal evidence. One student wrote about how he quit a "crooked" sales job to keep his integrity, and another student mentioned that she soon would be helping her pregnant roommate care for a baby that was due in a few weeks.
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