Email Intrusions

There is this general notion that every email deserves a response. This idea seems to be present in the minds of senders and receivers of email. Why this should be so for solicitous email has me baffled. And I dont mean spam – solicitous email is not mass-mailed.

Is this also the case for snail mail? When we send someone a letter, do we unreasonably expect a guaranteed response? I am sure this is not so. Even when we write to family and close friends, we would love to get a nice letter back, but are not greatly offended when none transpires, nor do we really feel guilty about not replying. So then why have we developed this strange guilt that drives us to respond to all mail, even if just to say “thanks”?

I get a lot of email where someone tries to get me to do something I am not really interested in based on the recommendation of someone who knows me. Does such email deserve a response? I am very often guilted into responding because of the one-removed personal connection that has been invoked through the connection with the recommending friend. Lets call this the “personal ” hook.

Many times we respond because its Pavlovian. We are so used to reading and replying as if they are one and the same thing. With snail mail these two functions were never melded together into the same neurological response. But with email, we are progressively trained to do so. As the number of messages arriving rises with time (as all of us know it does), the urge to respond reaches a suffocating crescendo, and we just end up committing to something we would never have agreed to when faced with the calmer reading of a written letter. No other activity I can think of lulls us into a feeling of being productive while wasting time than replying to email. And the number of people trying to help you stay far away from what you really want to do appears to be growing.

Solicitous email is like the vicious dog that latches on to your ankle and does not let go until you do what it demands. Even when you possess that will power needed to put unresponded emails aside and get back to other things, you will eventually re-open email, only to be instantly reminded of all those emails you failed to deal with the first time around. Like ghosts of minutes ago, they rear their ugly heads, demanding your mind share like a petulant child in a tumult of tantrums. No wonder it evokes a response very different from snail mail. which when put aside, doesnt actively intrude, unless you remind yourself of it.

I have written in the past about how the only solution is vast rejections of email by reducing the frequency of attention to less than once a day. But that does not change the fact that solicitous email remains in one’s inbox and taunts you repeatedly. It will have its pound of flesh, no matter what. Here are some ideas for dealing with the problem.

  1. If you dont want to respond immediately or ever, and dont have to (this should cover more than 3/4 of the email I get), then move the solicitous email out of the Inbox. I usually forward the email to another email account that I check only very infrequently. You can use a folder also. I’d name it “black hole”. Seems appropriate. You can even move it to a folder called “Urgent” – trust me, it will feel less urgent than the Inbox.
  2. I get more than my fair share of “please help” emails. I have been burned trying to help too many times. One feels bad and guilty, despite knowing full well that you cannot do anything. Yet, I end up trying, thus wasting other people’s time in the process, and only prolonging the time it takes to respond in the negative, usually hours later and after many back-and-forth emails. Barring the rare exception, such emails are best euthanized.
  3. Remember that solicitous emails are often mis-directed. Based on hearsay that you are the “one” most knowledgeable about the subject. Should you even reply explaining that you are a misfit, and completely unfit for the request? Probably not. Half the time when I write explaining a negative reply, I get another message in return completely changing the request to account for the reason for not engaging in the requested activity. So its best to lie low. Any response sets off a chain reaction that then eats up much more time than we can ever forecast. The best response is not “no”, it is no response.
  4. But sometimes one should not just ignore messages, especially when you are aware that a non-response will be interpreted by the sender as a failure of transmission, resulting in new deluge of messages that you already deemed fit to expunge. Therefore, one might want to acknowledge the message in a non-committal manner. Then, ignore the repeat or follow-up requests.

Unsolicited email is like someone walking into your house to ask you for a favor without bothering to knock first. I believe the best response is not to lock one’s house, but to refuse to engage in dialogue.


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