So you’ve got email. A lot of email. What a “lot” means isn’t hugely important here. If you feel overwhelmed by your inbox, you are. It’s a nice subjective Goldilocks question. Your “too much” might be someone else’s “just right.” That’s fine. We don’t care about the dude over in marketing who loves him some bright red notifications. We care about your inbox, which is in flames that can apparently only be extinguished by your own tears.
There are, broadly speaking, two ways of looking at emails. If your communication style tends towards the direct, email for you may be simple. Binary, even. Is a response required? Yes/No, act accordingly, delete.
If your communication style is more collaborative, your email decision tree has far more branches. In every message, you see at least two requests: a chance to exchange information, and an invitation to connect. Some of those opportunities are welcome, others are not, but they’re still there, and because of that secondary emotional piece, we collaborators don’t experience emails as simple factual requests that may or may not require a response. Instead, our inboxes are filled with little beasts with sharp teeth, biting off tiny pieces of our souls as we add a happy face here and a dash of depreciating humor or a personal update there, not just on that email from mom, but on every single one. To do otherwise, or let emails that don’t require an information response go without offering an emotional acknowledgment, feels rude.
Anybody can send you anything any number of times and at any hour of the day, and then there you are, with the ball in your court whether you wanted to play or not.
The great glory of email, from the sender’s point of view, is that it has lifted the burden of civility from the initiator of the communication and placed it squarely on the shoulders of the recipient. Anybody can send you anything any number of times and at any hour of the day, and then there you are, with the ball in your court whether you wanted to play or not. The savvier among us recognize that we can’t volley with everybody. The rest of us are still wildly swatting back responses so rote that our email accounts have begun to generate them automatically: Thanks! Got it! Looking forward to it!
We’re just going to have to get over it. Because rude — r, u, d, e and I’m gonna get cute here, so it’s easy to remember — is in many cases exactly what we should be going for. Sometimes we email with the intent of making a connection, and that’s great. Those emails are the ones we value, the messages that once required a pen, paper, envelope and stamp. The rest of the time — when the connection is already made, when it’s not a goal, when the need is purely administrative — email can be rude, as in Required, Unapologetic, Direct and Easy.
Required. The first letter is, as it should be, the most important. Does something — life, work, whatever — require this email? Does the email you’ve been sent require a reply? Note that if the reply is something gmail can automatically generate for you, the answer is probably no.
Unapologetic. Were you slow to respond? That’s okay. If the matter was urgent, the sender would have said so — and if it’s not, we all need to quit expecting that emails demand immediate attention simply by virtue of their ability to appear on your radar at any time day or not. Are you afraid you’re bothering someone? Don’t be. Let them be responsible for choosing when, how and even if they reply.
Direct. Tell your recipient what you need and why, preferably in the subject line. If you don’t need a reply, say so — in her book "The Art Of Life Admin," Elizabeth Emens pines for a world in which we all use the acronym NNR (also NNTR) to indicate that we don’t require that “thanks” or “got it” reply. For now, spell it out. Here’s what you need to know: no need to reply.
Email should be courteous, but functional.
Easy. The best way to minimize the back and forth of email is to provide everything the recipient needs in the first go. Suggesting a meet-up? Offer a variety of times and places along with the invitation. Want feedback on a project? Ask for exactly what you want and by when, and include anything necessary, even if you’re not sure your recipient will be willing or able to help. Explain (unapologetically). You’re not assuming they’re on board, you’re just trying to make it easy for them if they are. As Cal Newport says in describing this process in his book "Deep Work," everyone’s life is easier when we make it simple to close the loop.
Email should be courteous, but functional. When we spend more time on the niceties than we do on the messages, we bog ourselves down in a system that was meant to free up our time. When it works, feel free to be rude.
When it’s your mother? Don’t.