Online communication

Phoenix Song, my coven, has had several inquiries over the spring  from people interested in learning more about us (and possibly joining us.) This is always a tricky process, but we’ve been through the initial stage enough times now that I want to talk about it here – and why we picked the initial process we did.

Our process is described over here and our introductory letter information is here, if you’d like to see specifically what we talk about.

So, why email?

There are a number of reasons I wanted to start with email. While I recognise that it’s not a perfect communications tool (and that some people will be more familiar with it and comfortable with it than others), I felt that the advantages more than make up for that.

The basics:

There are some practical reasons we like email that are pretty straightforward:

I can easily share it with L, so that both of us are looking at exactly the same introductory material (not me summarising a phone call to her, or anything else where my interpretation might get in the way.) Both of us review all initial inquiries, so this is very helpful.

It gives us initial information to review if we choose to move forward. Before we meet with someone in person, I go over the email closely, and use it to draft the questions we’re particularly interested in talking about in a face-to-face conversation. I don’t mean ‘we pick on every little detail’, here, but things like:

  • You talked about your past ritual experiences – what kinds of things did you do, if you’re comfortable sharing? How did your group plan rituals? What are you excited about doing more of?
  • You talked a little about what you’re interested in, but we’re not sure exactly how you see this fitting with what we do – can you expand on why you’re interested in us in particular (since there are lots of groups in our area.)
  • You mentioned really liking this particular book/author. What about it did you find helpful or interesting?

Since our initial conversations are averaging between an hour and a half and two hours, having the email basics to start with means we don’t need to spend our time on the background (Does someone have any previous group experience? What are they specifically hoping for/looking for? What kinds of things are they really intrigued by?) and lets us go deeper in our conversation.We think that’s a good thing.

I don’t care much for the phone. Actually, that’s a little inaccurate. I think phones are great, but I can find them very disruptive to my personal schedule. I’m often either out in the evening, or working on things that can’t easily be interrupted (baking, writing, etc), and I go to bed very early (since I get up for work at 5:30.) The chances I’d be able to drop what I’m working on and have a meaningful conversation with someone about the group without causing problems for other commitments are relatively small. It seems more fair for me to start with some other communication method.

But there are also other reasons we do it.

It equalises the information gap, at least a bit.

If you look through the coven website and this blog, it’s possible to get quite a good sense of my background and approach (with some explicit dates, details, and other specifics where appropriate.) No, I don’t share precisely where I work, or my legal name – but I do share a fair bit about my life, choices, practical issues, things I’m thinking about, and so on. (I don’t expect everyone to read every blog post, or anything – but we do expect that people interested in the group will absolutely read the group website, and maybe explore a little beyond that. It’s certainly available, anyway.)

Now I don’t expect everyone to share this much (and L, my covenmate, doesn’t). But it does mean that people interested in the group have access to a great deal more information about me, and about Phoenix Song, than I do about them.

We’ve carefully designed the email questions to help change that – in a way that we think is appropriate for anyone considering a small working group. One of the things I’m also looking for, honestly, is where someone’s boundaries are and how they handle them. “I’d rather wait to share that” can be a perfectly reasonable answer, but we’re looking for people who can navigate that space between openness and inappropriate sharing in order to build a healthy relationship.

It allows for someone to show us themselves at their best:

There’s no deadline on the email: someone can take as long as they like to revise, edit, come back to their responses. This means that they can show us themselves at their best, decide how they want to address questions, and figure out how to share what they want to share. They can, if they choose, ask a friend or family member to review it, and make sure they haven’t left anything out. They can put it aside for a couple of days, and come back to it.

We think all of this is a good thing. We want to see someone at their best possible presentation to start with, and see if that’s a good fit for what we do and how we do it. (Both are important!)

We want to be upfront about our communication style:

Our teaching structure is designed for a bunch of background reading, some questions, and then bringing that forward into conversation and discussion during class time. We do it that way because we want to focus during our time together on the personal conversations and understandings, not on covering general background material that may already be familiar for people who’ve been around the Pagan community for a while.

We recognise this isn’t going to be the right fit for everyone, but it’s a choice we’re pretty set on, for a variety of reasons. However, we want to make sure people know what they’re getting into, so the intro email helps us see how someone handles written material and a written response that they have lots of time to work with. (I’ll note that if we do get a student for whom reading online text is a real issue, we’ve worked out some likely alternative options.)

We’ve gotten very clear and concise letters that address each point (sometimes they’ve answered it, sometimes they’ve declined politely: both are generally fine.) And we’ve gotten emails that ignore half the things we ask about, including the practical details like whether they’re available at the times we’re likely to be scheduling things.

Details matter to us.

Not the specifics of what they are, as much as how someone handles them:

This probably isn’t a surprise, when you realise that my background is as a librarian, and L’s training is as an engineer. We realise that people who don’t deal with specifics and details very well are probably going to find us *very* frustrating to deal with (and we’ll find them frustrating too). We’d much rather work that out sooner than later.

It’s also giving us a good idea of how well someone reads instructions and background material – for example, if we say (as we do) that we’re not looking for someone’s whole life story, and that we want a paragraph or two for each numbered question, that gives us a baseline. Very brief answers (with no detail) would be a problem – but so would very long answers of thousands of words that don’t actually address everything we ask.

The idea of an inital task:

The final thing I want to talk about here is the idea of an initial task – something common to many structured small groups in the Pagan community.

In the group I trained with, they offer introductory Seeker classes several times a year: anyone interested in joining the group has to first attend those classes and complete some (fairly simple) homework assignments. The people who do both have demonstrated an initial willingness to invest some time and energy in getting to know the group, and in following a task through to completion.

With Phoenix Song, we knew we didn’t want to offer Seeker classes in the same way (for a variety of reasons – but the main one is that it’s not as logical a fit for a small closed group). But we *did* want to find a way to winnow out people who were only casually interested in the group. That meant having an initial contact method that required some time and energy investment to complete.

I started with a whole bunch of different questions, and edited and revised them until I had an introduction letter that most people should be able to write in an hour or two.  I didn’t want something someone could dash off quickly, and I wanted something that would require a certain amount of thought, organisation, and attention. Are there other ways this letter could do that? Absolutely. But I think in general, it does a good job of balancing the different things we’re interested in, without being an overwhelming task.

Does someone review the website thoroughly before emailing us with questions? Do they review the introductory letter specifics thoughtfully, and address each significant point somehow (again, “I’d rather wait on that” is fine.) Do they seem to make use of the various tools and options they have available (like reviewing what they write before sending it, reviewing the website one more time, etc.)

The potential flaws with email:

Now, all of this said, we recognise that there are some flaws with email.

Not everyone’s equally comfortable communicating by email:

This is true, and very valid. Some people are much better talking face to face than they are with email.  On the other hand, we have to be realistic here: there are doubtless dozens, if not hundreds, of people interested in finding a Pagan group to work with in my metro area at any given time.

These days, most people have access to email (and if not, how’d they find us, since we’ve got the website and all, but no physical advertised meeting place.) It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable burden, and it’s a good way to make sure we don’t waste each other’s time if there really isn’t a good fit.

How can we judge someone’s fit for the group based on an email?

How do we make decisions about anything? We look at how something fits with past things we’ve experienced.

In my case, I’ve been online since 1994. In that time, I’ve sent a whole lot of emails, read many text-only communications (through participation in everything from Usenet to email lists to web-based forums to online journal sites). I’ve handled applications for online games, for people interested in helping with a particular event or project, and answered the email for my parent group for about 5 years. On top of that, I spent about 18 months volunteering for an online Terms of Service team helping people with significant issues with LiveJournal.com’s policies – correspondence that was usually about emotionally charged or otherwise complex things.

I’ve seen a lot of text go by, in other words.

Now, does this mean I read tone perfectly? Nope, I’m human, and I mess up. But it does mean I’ve got a generally pretty good idea, based on how someone approaches an email (and especially one with some outlined questions, like our introductory one) of things that will be a comfortable approach in close and emotionally intimate work, and things that aren’t.

I can’t judge if someone’s a nice person or not from one email. But I can determine whether they read the instructions carefully. I can get an idea of whether they took time to review and revise what they sent. I can get a sense of what things they care a lot about (and probably spent more time talking about) and what things they’re not as interested in.

I can also see how they approach me. Do they make assumptions in their email about what I think, do, want, or other things? Do they do things that make it easier for me to read and respond? Do they treat me like a human being – neither putting me down, nor putting me on a pedestal? Do they spell my name right? (I admit it’s tricky, but I do notice this detail.)

And how do they respond to the specific structures of this email? Do they seem to be resisting any idea of limits or focus, or do they ask questions about why we ask something in particular? (Asking’s fine, incidentally!) Or do we wander all over the place? (Wandering can be fun, but it’s probably not a good fit for your first introduction.)

It’s easy to mislead in email:

Because of the ability to edit and revise, there’s another possible concern – that someone will come across a lot better as a possible fit in email than they actually are in person. (We haven’t had this come up in a coven setting yet, but I have seen it in a few other situations over the years.)

This, of course, is why email is the starting point, and why we have lots of other interactions before making a final decision about accepting someone as a Dedicant. The email does give us a good baseline, though – if there’s a significant difference between the email and the face to face time, we know that we’ve got more questions to ask, and where to start.

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