For the Love-Hate of E-mail

Most of us would fail in Emily Post’s world.

After 25 years of using e-mail as we know it, I have failed. I’ve become one of them, one of the people who I never could understand, one of the people who don’t reply to e-mail.

I used to be so easily frustrated when I would e-mail someone and not hear back, as in not even a “no thank you, I’m not interested” or “I’m sorry, but I’m not available.” I had friends who read their e-mail like Twitter, only responding to what they happen to see that day. I couldn’t understand that mentality, letting potentially important messages slip by, ignoring common courtesies, and seemingly scoffing at those of us who took our time to write to them.

I eventually gave a pass to certain people not responding to e-mail — friends who were extremely introverted, colleagues who couldn’t put a grammatically correct sentence together to save their lives, family members who would pick up the phone and call me back instead. These things were forgivable, but there were some things I couldn’t drop. I couldn’t understand why companies couldn’t at least create auto-response messages when people apply for jobs. Somehow, the etiquette has turned to: don’t e-mail us, because we sure won’t e-mail you. So I carried around this chip on my shoulder, for many years.

My own story is a downfall I could not have predicted, yet it was somehow inevitable. The slippery slope from where I began so long ago — so eager, and with so much time. I began using e-mail at age 17, after three years of messaging on computer bulletin board systems. I was so excited when I first obtained an e-mail account. It was like entering a bright, shiny new world of possibility. I became an e-mail advocate, an e-mail educator, an e-mail addict. I loved e-mail. It kept me company when I was alone. It brought me ideas when I felt stumped. It was a steadfast companion. I was fiercely loyal to e-mail.

I used to read all of my messages, reply to all of my messages, delete all of my messages. I had a storage system where I archived — as text messages — anything worth saving long-term. I printed the most personal messages and shoved them into boxes for safe keeping. I became an expert at writing personal and professional notes by e-mail. Gradually, I became less adept at sending paper letters and thank you notes. One day I finally gave up, I was so far behind on those. But I was still on top of e-mail.

Then the spam came. Buckets of spam. Monsoons of spam. I eventually employed a double spam filter system, but even that couldn’t keep it all away. E-mail was my nemesis, but it was also my crusade. I fought a multiple front war on different e-mail accounts, battling spam at every turn. Professionally, I became more engaged in a variety of projects, adding me to a multitude of lists. Two hundred messages a day became four hundred messages a day became six hundred messages a day. I won’t claim that I needed to read all of these; most were from the lists, but the ~10% of messages directed only to me began to become neglected.

First, I would respond only one or two days late to things. Then, I began missing messages. Part of it was technical. Messages were disappearing. Then I changed primary e-mail systems. Most messages started making it through, but my own digital life was becoming difficult to manage. Now, as I face a mountain of 13,000 unread messages just from this past week and I know when I dive into the hairy wilderness that is my inbox, I will find a few things where I should have replied sooner, and I will feel badly, but not as badly as I would have in the past. I blame (or credit, as the case may be) social media.

Before social media, there was only e-mail for online communications. Eventually, we had instant messaging, but not everyone used it, and it was more real-time, like text messaging. Once Facebook and other sites and apps arrived allowing internal messaging, people began using those for correspondence. We all became fragmented.

Now I have to keep track of phone calls, voice messages, text messages, Facebook messages, Twitter DMs, LinkedIn messages, Angel List inquiries, etc. — all private messages. That’s in addition to the public threads, hashtags, notifications, ad infinitum. Now we’re in a place where no one can possibly be expected to reply in all of these places in what was once considered a timely fashion. It’s too cumbersome for most people. Messages are not an end; they are a means. If we can’t control the means, we will never get to the end.

So for the love-hate of e-mail, I have adopted a new philosophy. Instead of assuming others play by the same rules of digital media, I will no longer judge them for their behaviors. (Okay, maybe I will on occasion, but I’ll try really hard to let most of it fly by.) We all use e-mail and messaging systems differently, as an e-mail researcher friend once taught me. I am working on my own e-mail manners, especially #1 and #4 on the top ten list.

Some of my busiest, most successful friends excel at #1: always respond. Even if they are unavailable or not interested, they say so, very briefly. I find that people respect that, if it’s honest and considerate. As for #4, maybe it’s time for an auto-responder. I’ve also taken on a number of mundane, technical changes that have helped (there’s always another app or feature), but for the most part, I find that managing e-mail is about habits. My habit used to be to have e-mail always on, all the time. I replied as things came in and others came to expect that.

Now my personal and professional life are so full that I just can no longer derail myself for constant intermittent e-mail engagement. I finally realized that this is a good problem to have, so rather than berating myself, I’ve decided to treat e-mail like voicemail. I find it a sad commentary on our digital lives that some people have resorted to out-of-office messages in their e-mail inboxes on weekends. No one should ever expect a reply on weekends. They may receive one, but they should not expect one.

Emily Post described manners as “a sensitive awareness to the needs of others.” I think if we can take a few minutes each day to consider this phrase when managing the requirements of our digital lives, we will eventually come to a better place, and a better understanding of how e-mail and other tools frame our real social networks, and maybe be a little more polite to each other in the process.