Do you want to be remembered as someone who does great work, or for your speedy email replies??NATHALIE MARQUEZ COURTNEY?knows which side of the fence she’s on.
I did it again. My fingers hovered over the keyboard. Trying to blaze through my emails, I was typing, for what felt like the hundredth time that day: ?I’m sorry for not getting back to you sooner…? Sometimes, I’d add a qualifier (?It’s been a crazy few days?). Other times, I’d keep it short and sweet (?apologies for the delay?) and move on. But almost always, there would be some kind of apology. It was shortly after one of these mammoth wrestling matches with my unruly inbox that a story popped up on my Twitter feed; it was from?New York?Magazine’s ?Science of Us? column. Written by Melissa Dahl, the piece was titled, ?Let’s all stop apologising for the delayed response in our emails?. Later that day, it showed up on my Facebook feed. That evening, a friend shared a quote from the piece on her Instagram. Clearly, it had hit a nerve.
A BROKEN SYSTEM
It got me wondering about how this apology merry-go-round got started. Part of the problem is that email is an archaic system, technologically speaking. The first email was sent almost 40 years ago. These days, even the most sophisticated’mail?apps can only do so much, as they are building on old, rigid tech – very little can be improved upon or upgraded. Email plods along, largely unaltered, even though the number of emails we send and receive has increased exponentially. We also never really ?learned? how to use email; there are few commonly adhered-to ground rules about how to manage expectations, hence a lot of second-guessing and unspoken etiquette. In her?New York?Magazine piece, Dahl writes that one of the reasons we’re always chasing our tail is because we’re not very good at telling each other when we need a response by. ?How many people who email you are truly expecting an instant reply?? she asks.
We talk about ?catching up? on emails, but there is a deceptive, false comfort in that phrase: Catching up?implies that a point will come when you are caught?up,?when you have stopped. With email, this is never the case. That little red counter will continue to?tick?up so long as you keep working. Email is at the centre of our always-busy, always-on culture. This is not only?unproductive,?but unhealthy. ?Several studies have linked frequent email- checking with higher levels of anxiety. Research from the University of British Columbia concluded that limiting the number of times people checked their email per day ?lessened tension during a particularly important activity and lowered overall day-to-day stress?, which should come as news to absolutely nobody. Today’s average professional gets over 110 emails per day (not including spam), with a recent study by Loughborough University showing that people tend to take just over a minute to react to a new email notification. The emails are increasing, but the number of hours in our day is not. We plough ahead, working our way through our inbox dutifully or ignoring it guiltily and sending apologetic responses. But email is like Tetris – no matter how good you are, more will keep coming. The goal cannot be to answer everything.
THE GOOD GIRL COMPLEX
In her essay, ?Do you want to be known for your writing, or for your swift email responses??, Melissa Febos suggests ?cultivating a persona of unreliability?. Don’t always reply as soon as you possibly can; strive to become less consistent in your replies, and the majority of people will simply adjust their expectations. This can be particularly hard for women, as we are ?conditioned to ever prove?ourselves,?as if our value is contingent on our ability to meet the expectations of others,? writes Febos. You can bet if Jane Austen were writing now, her works would be littered with missives on how soon one should appropriately respond to?emails,?or wicked jabs at those who unnecessarily CC all their colleagues. ?We complete tasks, and in some half-buried way believe that if we don’t, we will be discredited,? Febos notes. The irony is we don’t mind when other people take a day or two or even a week to’reply,?but are often riddled with guilt, issuing internal demerits for all the emails we have yet to answer.
Catching up? implies that a point will come when you are caught?up,?when you have stopped. With email, this is never the case.
THE FUTURE OF EMAIL IS NO EMAIL
The tech world is responding by trying to move beyond email – tools like Slack and Intercom (like WhatsApp, but for businesses to talk to their customers) offer completely new ways to communicate that don’t rely on email at all. Slack, an instant messaging tool for teams, creates a clutter-free space where you can send quick back-and-forths and know that every message is’real?? not one of the many app notifications, promotional newsletters or receipts that clog our inboxes. Companies can create ?channels? for different projects or topics, users can set a status if they’re away (which people see before they send you a message), and colleagues can converse in more fluid, transparent ways. It’s the darling of Silicon Valley and has been dubbed ?the email killer? by?Time‘magazine. Elizabeth McGuane, a content strategist with Intercom, a B2C messaging tool, helps design bots and write interface language at their Dublin office, so is at the coalface of this new wave of communication. ?I’m a student of conversations,? she laughs. Her work involves looking at the language we use when communicating, and how that affects when we expect a reply – whether it be?from?a person or a bot. “There’s a spectrum of expectation that happens,” she explains. “If you’re talking to a business, for example, your expectation of what is reasonable is different than if you were talking to a friend.”
This spectrum of expectation is often ill-defined; it varies from company to company and person to person, so we never quite know exactly when we’re expected to reply or when it’s okay to leave an email sitting unanswered for more than 24 hours. ?People know they want an answer in a reasonable time frame, but what ‘reasonable? is can vary,? says McGuane. Often, the power to decide what ‘reasonable? is lies in our hands – we just don’t use it. So how can you be part of the solution? Stop apologising for ?late? or ‘delayed? replies. Start including a line that tells the recipient when you need a response by. And, whenever possible, use what’s becoming one of the sweetest phrases in the English language: ?No need to reply”.
Read more in the October Issue of IMAGE Magazine, on shelves now.