How to talk to strangers on the Internet

Almost fifteen years ago, in the eighth grade, I was assigned a project on the radioactive element Thorium. This gentle scold appeared at the bottom of the assignment:

“Students must use book sources. Do not consult the Internet as a primary source.”

There were no books in my school’s library devoted to this essential yet oft-forgotten element, so ignoring my teacher’s directions, I turned to the Web. Within minutes, I located a scientist who studied Thorium in a lab in Utah and wrote him an email explaining my predicament. He wrote back almost immediately. Over the course of a month, we corresponded about sources I could use, questions about the elemental lifecycle, and nuclear science. For my final project, I printed out the emails and displayed them on a poster with information both about the element and my new pen pal. I earned an A+.

I have always written letters and emails to people I admire: artists I like, potential mentors, and people I just think seem cool. I learn and grow at my best through personal interaction, and sending blind emails is how I have made many of my best professional and personal contacts.

The era of the distant, unreachable role model may be over; many of the people I admire professionally maintain active Twitter presences and websites with contact information, as well as answer their correspondence diligently. While I have mixed feelings about the constant engagement of a technologically mediated life, the flattening of access has been incredibly useful to me. Being brave enough to reach out to strangers on the Internet can ultimately lead to much richer opportunities and grow a social network organically and thoughtfully.

Having the courage to write to whomever I like has always come naturally, but I have realized in the last few years that it is a skill that can be practiced. I find that success comes down to one primary axiom:

Be authentic, thoughtful, and polite.

While most faux pas can be avoided by thinking through your correspondence, following Paul Ford’s rules of politeness, and being your own true self, I’ve found that a few rules can help you make your correspondence shine:

1. Keep it formal

It’s old fashioned, but starting an email with “Hey!” is for horses. Open your email with a polite “Dear ________” and keep your language formal throughout. If you want to tread extra carefully, address a person by their last name and preferred salutation, if you know it. (If you don’t know it, don’t assume!) You can always write colloquially later.

When I moved to Germany, this polite habit came in handy; business emails never address the person by their first name unless specifically indicated. Unfortunately, this leads to long salutations like “Sehr geehrter Herr Professor Doktor Doktor Müller,” but I was surprised how a simple rule from childhood became a part of my life.

2. Be clear about why you’re writing

Want to have coffee? Want to talk about their research? Want to be friends? Want money? Say so. Be kind, firm, and polite, but also be honest.

I edited the music section of the Columbia Spectator from 2008 to 2009 and often found myself in the situation where I had to reach out cold for articles to musicians and publicists, many of whom I looked up to. Because I kept my ask clear, almost everyone wrote me back, even though the publication I edited was run by college students.

By being bold in my correspondence, I snagged many of my best interviews for myself and my writers because I was never afraid to write to a publicist or directly to a musician to ask them for an interview or free tickets to a show.

3. Fangirl (or boy) appropriately

You’re probably writing because you admire the person, so let them know, but don’t overdo it. Tell the person that you enjoy their work, but make sure you have something to say.

I wrote a letter to Greil Marcus in 2011 that illustrates this point. After praising and providing my own context on an article he had recently written, I spent the last paragraph asking for support for a project. While I made it clear that I’m a fan of his work, I also asked specifically for project support, which gave him a reason to write me back.

4. Always offer to meet “in person”

Emails take time and people are busy. A video call or in person meetup can often avoid months of emailing and help you gain access to a person faster. Can’t meet? That’s fine: be prepared with an outline and quickly enumerate your points in a way that’s easy to answer inline.

5. Don’t use boilerplates.

While boilerplates serve their purpose in certain contexts, correspondents can always sense a boilerplate.

A few years ago, I sent a boilerplate to a professor I wished to study with. After sending the email, I realized I had not changed several crucial pieces of information. I immediately sent a redaction, but it was too late: She saw directly through what I had done, and took me to task. Though I sent an apology, I knew I had ruined any potential relationship with this professor.

To avoid this situation, I’ve found the Gmail undo button ingenious. That five seconds of thought could save you months of embarrassment.

5. Be patient.

Your favorite author may not write back for several weeks, or even months. You can wait. Only send a reminder email if you truly expect the person to write you back faster, or if you think they would appreciate the nag. I personally operate by a two week rule of thumb.

Sometimes people don’t write you back, and that’s okay: no one owes you anything. Brush it off and try again with someone who wants to take the time to work with you.

I’ve always reached out to strangers because I am genuinely interested in other people and their work, and also excited to share my own. A meaningful relationship can be formed through correspondence, and if nothing else, your writing articulates your own unique vision. I view networking as a natural, curious expression of how we interact with the world on a daily basis, a way to explore shared interests and spark the next big idea. Austin Kleon sums it up beautifully: “If you want people to know about what you do and the things you care about, you have to share. Talk about the things you love. Your voice will follow.”

I cannot promise that Taylor Swift will go Christmas shopping for you this year if you write her, but I can tell you that in my experience, people care more than you think, your work is valuable, and allowing yourself the vulnerability of reaching out to a potential ally is one of the greatest skills you can learn.

So then, can someone ask Taylor why she’s been ignoring all my emails?

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