September 21, 2007
Monkey See, Monkey Do: Your Mirror Heurons and Email
~ written by Terri A. Mester, Ph.D.
Mirroring or echoing the actions of your clients and colleagues is a great way to close up email’s distancing effects. Whether it’s a greeting or closing, you need to find ways to build rapport with your correspondent by sounding like him or her. For example, if opposing counsel greets you as “Dear Counselor Darrow,” you’d fail to mirror if you reply with a “Hiya Bill.”
Common sense? Sure. But did you know that there is a biological basis for mirroring your correspondents? Scientists discovered in the late 1990s the presence of mirror neurons in our brains. Using MRIs, they studied monkeys and discovered that neurons fired both when a monkey did a particular task – grabbing a branch, for example -- and when the monkey saw another monkey do that same task. This suggested that the brain is designed to draw analogies between our own mental and physical states and those of other individuals. Call it a form of mindreading. The research implied that autistic people suffer from broken mirror neurons, preventing them from building hypotheses about others’ internal monologues.
Scientists think mirror neurons are linked to the origins of language, since all forms of communication presuppose a working model of the object you’re attempting to communicate with. For language to evolve, humans needed a viable theory about the minds of other people --- otherwise we’d all just be gibbering to ourselves.
According to David Shipley and Will Schwalbe (Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home), language represents action. “When someone signs, ‘Warmly’ it registers even at a glance and creates a warm feeling. When you sign ‘warmly’ and your correspondent fails to mirror, it may create a chill.” They go on to suggest that correspondents remember the benefits of mirroring as they apply to all aspects of email: word choice, length, sentence structure, speed of response – even content. If you respond to the content of an email and don’t mirror the pleasantries, you create a hostile tone.
If you are an open and friendly correspondent, you’ll make your recipient anxious if your emails suddenly shorten and take on a colder cast.
Be sure to learn more on writing the appropriate email by attending Everything Email: Legal Writing for the Legal Professional on Thursday, October 4 from 9:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. with Dr. Terri A. Mester of Case Western University. Register online here or phone 614/221.4112 for event # 3720. The cost is $85 prepaid/$100 day of for members, $125 prepaid/$140 day of for non-members and $55 prepaid/$70 day of for paralegals.