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I Think I’ve Identified Email’s Fundamental Flaw

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There’s something we’re overlooking about email, which is: Why don’t we just tell each other when we’re expecting a reply?

Sometimes people do this, I know, but it isn’t a norm, and it should be. Do you need a response today? This week? This month? Do you need a response at all? The more I think about this, the more it seems like email’s fundamental flaw. Just tell me when you need the thing you’re emailing about, and I’ll do the same for you.

A while back, Melissa Febos wrote a post for Catapult headlined, “Do You Want to Be Known for Your Writing, or for Your Swift Email Responses?” I still think about it sometimes, particularly this part:

Stop apologizing for taking a reasonable length of time to respond to an email. Knock it off! You are ruining it for the rest of us (and yourself) by reinforcing the increasingly accepted expectation of immediate response. … A week seems like a perfectly reasonable length of time to take. Or longer.

But … what is “reasonable”? Personally, I agree with Febos; a week feels okay to me. Two weeks, even. But then I said this casually on Slack to my colleague Edith Zimmerman, who said: “lol!!!! i’m gonna pass out at the idea that someone would take 2 weeks to respond to me.” I don’t want the Ediths of this world to pass out! Later that night, I asked my partner, Andrew, about it: What feels like a “reasonable” amount of time to him? “Probably within an hour,” he said. !! An hour!!

I recently read a book on attachment styles, and now I’m going around dividing the whole world into these three types — anxious, avoidant, secure — but I do wonder if the idea could apply to email responsiveness. Maybe anxious emailers reply as quickly as their emails come in, and avoidant emailers (me) let their emails pile up. And then there must be some secure emailers, who just instinctively know the right time to email, the right amount of time to let pass by. The reasonable amount of time.

But, no, that doesn’t seem right, either. “Reasonable” is dependent on individual interpretation, and that’s the problem, or it’s my problem, anyway. I assume everyone else has the same email expectations that I do, and I’m baffled and annoyed and defensive when this turns out not to be true.

Now I’m thinking: What if there were a little box in your Gmail, where you could set a deadline for the email you’re writing? And it would show up in the subject line: RESPONSE NEEDED BY 6 P.M. ON FRIDAY. (I know the new Gmail recently introduced something like this — “Received 3 days ago. Reply?” — but still! Shouldn’t we set our own standards for when we need a reply?)

Oh! And your in-box, instead of being ordered chronologically, could be ordered by deadline. If you wanted it that way — I’m not going to assume that you do. Although … now I’m wondering if adding all these demands would make our in-boxes even more anxiety-inducing. Mostly, maybe, I know I should stop assuming that other people will just magically know what I need from them, without me having to spell it out. (And I should probably also stop assuming I know what others need from me.) Email is just a small, dumb example of that.

But also, man. There’s just so much email.

I Think I’ve Identified Email’s Fundamental Flaw