Social expectations about digital etiquette have never been more in flux. The solution? Avoid worrying about it altogether
You know youve reached a crisis point in your email backlog when youre obliged as I was recently to confront the following conundrum of electronic etiquette: is it ruder to reply to an email after three months than not to reply at all? On one hand, obviously, not replying is obnoxious. On the other, at least it lets the sender imagine that you missed their message entirely, or even that it never arrived; a reply implies, insultingly, that I had three months worth of more important things to do first (and/or that Im hopelessly overwhelmed by emails which is true, and particularly embarrassing, given that Ive championed various systems for taming the monster in this very column).
In the end, I opted to reply. But even then I didnt get closure on the matter, because of course the recipient didnt say she was offended and, this being email, I had no facial expressions or vocal inflections by which to judge. The internet: helping us understand each other less well since 1969.
Three months is, lets be clear, far too long to delay a reply. But I suspect were entering a phase in emails history when social expectations about such matters have never been more in flux. As the burden of digital communication keeps increasing, digital minimalism is entering the mainstream. (I recommend a new book on the topic by the computer science professor Cal Newport.) Some of your email correspondents may be experimenting with radical cutbacks in their online time, while others are simply overwhelmed; some may have removed email from their smartphone years ago, while others run their whole lives from their inbox. Whos to know whats normal any more?
Recently, on the website The Cut, the psychology writer Melissa Dahl recalled her horror at learning that her social circles expectations for reply times to emails differed wildly from her own. She felt a week or two was often OK, but a colleague said she would be offended by that, while Dahls partner thought a reasonable timeframe was probably within an hour. I admire the fact that she even asked; Im not sure Id have the guts. That said, I cant endorse her suggestion that we encourage others to set deadlines for their emails, so we would know when they required a reply, perhaps even sorting our inboxes according to their needs. I lack sufficient faith in humanity: there would be a huge incentive for people especially those least entitled to my attention to pretend their message was uniquely urgent.
I suggest we embrace the fracturing of consensus. The sense of uncertainty should help us see that, in reality, youve rarely got a clue why someone took so long to reply (or to do anything else, for that matter). Maybe theyre lazy. But maybe theyre moving house, or just had a baby, or are handling a family crisis, or are struggling with mental illness. Its a self-serving argument, in my case, since I can plead only ordinary overwork, plus a winter of minor viruses caught from toddlers. But still the right approach, I think. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, in the words of a saying thats almost as old as some of the contents of my inbox.
Listen to this
The academic and author Cal Newport explains how, and why, to live as a digital minimalist in an episode of the Hurry Slowly podcast
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