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Email is People

We all complain about too much email. We just can’t find the time to get to it all. Too many emails, too much to read through. We already have too much to do.

Inbox Zero. GTD. Three sentences. Email bankruptcy. We keep telling each other that email is stress, it’s a necessary evil, it is the worst part of our workday, it needs to be tamed, it needs to be ignored.

But it’s not “email,” this mythical creature we have created as our enemy; it’s people. Email is people.

An email does not send itself. It is sent by another human being. Whether an individual person hit send, or whether they set up an automated service, it represents the same thing. It is one person making contact with another person. It is simply the chosen method of communication. In our vilification of the method, we have lost the message.

Email is people. Needs and wants, questions and advice, aspirations and inspiration. That’s what we’re putting off, avoiding, not making time for, bitching about. People who want to connect with us — we are rejecting them.

I’m guilty of it as much as anyone else, if not more. Here I am talking about empathy, day in and day out, continuing to ignore my emails. Ignoring my fellow human beings, people who want to forge or desperately maintain a connection with me. People for whom my silence is waiting, wondering, irritation, aggravation, inconvenience, rejection, confusion, lost opportunity, added work, a denial, a sign. Yet I continue to not respond.

Sometimes I happen to be looking at my email when someone emails me and I reply right away. We’re connected in that brief moment, that immediate exchange, and we are able to affect one another. The information is shared, the commitment is confirmed, the plans are made, the issue is settled, and we can both move on — better, clearer, sure. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. But now we know. We know. We exchanged and engaged. One person reached out to another person, and was met.

So as of today, I want to stop the email slander. Instead I want to recognize it for what it is: the people who make up my life. Best friends, strangers, colleagues, role models, mentees, prospects. Even the bills, even the mailing lists, even the surveys! There are human beings behind every one of them. Regardless of intention, regardless of quality, regardless of relevance — there they are, right in front of me.

So let’s embrace email. Let’s embrace each other. And respond.

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  • freckman

    This is great. Here’s a piece I wrote on email that I think you’ll appreciate: http://aaronwilson.me/thoughts/how-to-take-your-life-back-from-email

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      Really thoughtful piece, Aaron. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • Russ Starke

    Very well said—nice piece, Whitney.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      Thank you, Russ!

  • http://willsansbury.com/ Will Sansbury

    In a face-to-face interaction, a request is a negotiation of spoken words and subtle body language, and we don’t walk away with the other person holding an improper expectation without allowing it to happen.

    With email, on the other hand, there’s no negotiation. People can set expectations without consent of the other. For many, pushing back on the expectations others set is extremely uncomfortable. So rather than push into that uncomfortableness, people just avoid email entirely.

    I get that email is people. But a lot of email is people behaving badly—behaving in ways they wouldn’t face to face. The challenge is to embrace that email is an intermediary for the relationship without allowing email’s design shortcomings that encourage bad behavior to change the relationship. And that takes self awareness and resoluteness to not also behave badly with email.

    Just musing. Thanks for provoking me to think about it.

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog Whitney Hess

      Genius. You’re so right. We need to not only respond with empathy, we need to initiate email interactions with empathy as well. “Good behavior” means different things to different people, but at the very minimum we need to put ourselves in the shoes of the other — sender or recipient.

    • http://paulmcaleer.com/ Paul McAleer

      Will, this is a brilliant and wonderful point. I had a post about this very topic in the hopper, and I’m quoting your comment and also doing a response on my post. It’s awkward. But, this would be easier if we were talking face to face. ;)


      Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    • Josh Weaver

      @will, As I was reading this post I had a related thought, I wonder if a lot of the difficulties of email are a result of the fact that it doesn’t have all the body language and combination of visual and audio cues (that you’re referring to) which comes in face to face communication. It made me think about “media richness theory” (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_richness_theory) which says the richness and effectiveness of communication is determined by how well the medium can “reproduce the information sent over it.” Basically, communication’s effectiveness is limited by how well it reproduces a face to face interaction. I wonder how much of this limitation can be overcome?

      @whitneyhess:disqus, I’m curious if you have found any ways to help yourself mentally overcome the lack of richness in email (i.e. to help you think of the people on the other end as actual people)? I wonder if you saw a big picture of the person you were responding to as you were typing if that would help…

      • http://willsansbury.com/ Will Sansbury

        “As I was reading this post I had a related thought, I wonder if a lot of the difficulties of email are a result of the fact that it doesn’t have all the body language and combination of visual and audio cues…”

        While that’s true, I’m not sure that’s it, exactly. I think it has to do with one method of communication being used fluidly in pursuit of different outcomes.

        Email can be both a relationship-building (-supporting/-reinforcing) tool, much like letters were in days of old. If I’m writing a love note to my wife in email, I’m operating under one set of expectations and norms.

        Email can also be purely tactical communication. When I send an email that says “Check the iron; I think I forgot to turn it off,” I’m operating under a very different set of expectations.

        Neither is wrong, but applying one of these modes when the recipient expects the other can create some strife.

        Perhaps we avoid email because the cognitive overload of recognizing and switching between these modes of communication is so unpleasant and easy to screw up?

  • http://www.vanshea.com/ Van Shea Sedita

    In some ways I am reminded of Jim Carey’s character from Bruce Almighty, answering all prayers via email. Email might be people, but they are also people sending little asides, small recommends, kitties fighting lizards, and yes, high priority “please help” emails. Filtering and establishing priority is key, to my sanity at least, unless I’m made God one day of course. ;)

    • http://willsansbury.com/ Will Sansbury

      Good point. Signal to noise is a clear problem in email. We only have to look at Gmail’s ever-evolving inbox(es) to see that it’s a problem we haven’t yet really solved.

      • http://www.vanshea.com/ Van Shea Sedita

        Thanks Will, I liked your point as well. I always try to consider the workload of who I am emailing and what my “content” might mean to them. Most emails that I don’t get answered on I simply imagine the person saying “Hey, thanks but no thanks.”

  • http://fredrikstenbeck.com/ Fredrik Stenbeck

    I really like your post, it is positive and I think, as you write, that we often fall in the trap of being more negative then we need. Unfortunately I do not think the e-mail dilemma is as easy to solve as to embrace and reply (but it would be great). I wrote down my thoughts in a post and as you noted on Twitter, I do not have comments so I post here and looking forward in your reply here instead.


  • Chuck

    I’m not too sure about this. E-mail and spreadsheets have proliferated to such a degree and become autonomous forces, that like cockroaches, they will outlast humanity.


  • Rick Nucci

    Fair…but lets not look past those automated services you briefly mentioned…you can set those on auto-pilot and forgot just how often they are sending emails to people who don’t care to receive them. It’s great to see the ExactTarget news today, and the success of Marketo, Eloqua, etc. But don’t you think the success of those systems comes at the expense of you and I? Each email they send/monetize, is another email we have to read/process…we are paying the productivity tax for their success. Ok a little dramatic but somewhere valid?

  • http://austingunter.com/ Austin Gunter

    Understand where you’re coming from, but I disagree with the conclusion.

    Email isn’t people. Email is one way people choose to communicate with one another. Not all ways of communicating are equal, and we prefer that people communicate with us in certain ways over others. For example, we don’t yell at our significant others because it’s disrespectful and emotionally draining. Actually, we modulate our voices based on the context of the exchange.

    I started writing a long comment, but I went ahead and posted it on my blog: http://www.austingunter.com/2013/06/email-isnt-people-email-is-one-way-people-get-a-message-across-and-its-over-saturated/

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  • http://www.speakupforsuccess.com/ Jezra Kaye

    Wonderful, thoughtful. We have to balance our desire to create boundaries with respect for the people who want to connect with us. It’s the problem of our age, I think. Did you ever hear of “Dunbar’s Number?” That’s the idea that our brains are wired to handle about 150 relationships — in a LIFETIME! You probably hear from that many people every day.

  • http://www.lockedowndesign.com/ John J. Locke

    I love this post, Whitney. A lot of people in the comments are overthinking email entirely. I never go more than 24 hours without deciding what to do with email – it’s Spam, something to read later (to-do list), something to read now and respond to later that day, or something to read now and respond to now.

    Here’s the thing – You can’t have a face to face interaction with every single person who needs to talk to you. A hundred years ago, people said what they had to say in a letter via snail mail, and they got on just fine. There are people who want to feel damn important because they have a lot of messages in their inbox; I’ve never been one of them.

    Gary Vaynerchuk used to talk about this a lot: how he built all of his good will by establishing a connection with the people who followed him on Twitter or sent him an email. Those little courtesies are real interactions, whether they are face to face or not is completely inconsequential.

    People reveal who they are not when they interact with their buddies from the office or from back in the day, but when they deal with complete or relative strangers, when they think it doesn’t matter…but it does.

  • Christina Young

    A paragraph from The Art of Game Design reminded me of your post:

    “Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori noted something interesting about human response to robots and other artificial characters. If you think about how people empathize, you might notice that the closer something is to seeming human, the more they can empathize with it. … The more something is like a person, the more empathy we give it.”

    Maybe we just haven’t found the best way to make e-mails more human. I’d bet my dollar that a recorded video clip in my inbox would garter a quicker and more meaningful response than a message filled with text. Or maybe a photo. Or maybe a handwritten note. Or maybe…

    (Aside, just realized that this topic is similar to Josh Weaver’s and Will Sansbury’s discussion.)

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  • Alex Romeo

    Good stuff

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