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The morning mail is my enemy (lettersofnote.com)
193 points by gruseom on Aug 20, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 38 comments

Herein lies a problem with communication. Someone takes the time to write you. Social conventions obligate you to respond (though you'd be better off if you didn't respond to most). Even if you choose to "put it off for later," it weighs in the back of your mind.

Now fast forward to modern day, and the cost/time required to send an email is trivial. More emails get sent. Busy people get more inbound. Social conventions obligate you to respond, especially if it's someone you know.

We'd all be better off if the expectations of response were lower. That's why I like Twitter. There is little expectation or obligation to respond.

Einstein and Darwin were studied for correspondence patterns and replied to 25%, 32% of letters, respectively: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2005/oct/26/what-do...

Notably that article doesn't claim this is anything specific to Einstein and Darwin, but rather a general pattern.

I can remember Terry Pratchett (notable British author) announcing having to abandon having a public e-mail address because of this. He'd had one for basically as long as internet access has been available to the general public, which worked well enough in the early days of the internet but...

He'll still respond to correspondence sent to him via clacks.

I think the expectation of a response to an email is lower than to a letter. I certainly behave this way--if you send me an email, I might not respond but if you send me a letter I definitely will.

Of course, being a largely useless college student, I hardly get inundated with emails and so will probably respond in either case, but I would certainly feel better about ignoring an email than ignoring a letter.

I am willing to believe that the probability of an individual person expecting a response to an e-mail is smaller than for a letter (although I am not certain I agree). However, the cost of sending an e-mail is lower, so more people do it.

In my experience, the math then works out that numerous people are still angry if you don't respond to their e-mail; I have had people make entire blog posts about how horrible and dishonorable I am for not responding to e-mails that didn't even have any concrete questions or action items.

On the far end of this is Twitter: I get tons of messages on Twitter; enough that, when something is "happening" in the iPhone ecosystem, I have gotten hundreds of @replies in a few hours (in slow times, I thankfully get very few). However, Twitter only lets you get 800 messages from any non-timeline search, even using their website.

This means that if I'm not sitting around checking Twitter all day, there is no way I can even see all of the messages being sent at me, much less respond to them. However, in all of that mess, there are at least a few people who get really angry that I didn't see their message and respond to it personally.

Once, I spent a couple weeks, spending nearly all of my time answering e-mail. I still had people get really angry at me for not responding to their messages, and I now also had people angry at me that I wasn't accomplishing anything (such as writing new code).

Additionally, I was now getting much more e-mail, as the people I was responding to were taking that as an indication that they should send me more e-mail. That experience made me question the value of responding to anything at all. :(

Writing thoughtful, complete responses to Hacker News posts takes me a long time, time I could use instead to write my own essays or code. HN is my enemy (or frenemy). So I mostly just lurk.

(Sometimes I fail to resist the urge to respond, as you can see.)

I like this attitude. It is better to lurk than to reply with low-quality posts :)

I think @FAKEGRIMLOCK has the best idea here. As others have suggested, writing long well thought-out responses takes time. A lot of time.

But writing like a dinosaur, with short well thought-out responses. Now that doesn't take that long. And you can see this in how prolific @FAKEGRIMLOCK is.


Short replies aren't necessarily faster.

As Pascal once said, "I apologize that this letter is so long - I lacked the time to make it short."

More often than not, what you want to convey is clear within 30s of deciding you want to reply.

But then you start rambling. Because rambling is easier than Just Saying What You Want (tm).

For me, the problem isn't rambling, it's coming up with a sequence of words that accurately conveys what I want it to.

What you want to convey is clear.

What you actually convey is not.

Or, as I once read somewhere,

"Omit needless words."

I see what you did here. The Little Book FTW!

Or just;

"Omit words."

It was 9 years before his next children's book came out, although he did have time to write Strunk and White between the two.

In both cases, one should note, he nonetheless provided a personal and honest response, following the demands of politeness and social obligation that occur in small communities.

The trend in our ability to address those outside of our immediate social networks seems to be that it will only get easier as time passes. Either our idea of what constitutes polite social reciprocity will have to change, or new ways of mediating these communications will have to be found (automated prioritizing, etc).

Polite social reciprocity has changed. Many contacts are ignored outright (hanging up on telemarketers, not acknowledging job applications, not returning voicemails, etc.). Delayed responses are the norm with emails, texting and voicemails. Greetings and closings are rare unto suspicious in emails. Spam filters black/white-list what gets through. Long replies are rare. ...and little of these are ever considered "rude", as we all understand the staggering volume of messaging faced and managed, if with occasional notable failures.

Today, E.B.White would just set up an auto-reply and get on with his next book.

ETA: Right, he wouldn't as indicated. Though something would give, and some technology would be leveraged, making replies take much less than hand-typed-on-paper.

Today, E.B.White would just set up an auto-reply

I disagree. In fact, White himself disagrees in the letter. He could have set up an auto-reply by letting his publisher handle his mail, but found that "evasive and unsatisfying".

One can only hope that there will be some kind of convergence of email, SMS, status updates, voicemail, IM, twitter, DMs, etc., etc., etc. with some kind of automated prioritization/ filtering. When it takes hours to take care of your inbox in the morning, there is a systemic problem. Hopefully some room will be left for good manners and proper English.

It then becomes interesting socially whether it is best to click a button acknowledging that you saw the email but either didn't read or read but didn't reply. Or will at always be a social norm to not acknowledge to give you some kind of out of you converse with the person in future.

One thing that really annoys me is when I get an email asking for advice about pursuing a career in my type of work or something along those lines, I write a reasonably thorough response, and... Nothing. Not even a "Hey, thanks for taking the time to respond." Apparently what I received was just a form letter asking for a job. This sort of event, which I assume is not unique to me, really discourages taking the time to respond to queries.

I agree, this has happens to me regularly. Someone reaches out on email asking for advice, I take the time to write a significant response, and get none in return. I've also found it discouraging as this kind of response is the most common I get. It's rare for me to see so much as a "thanks for the reply!" and rarer still to see an in kind response. I'm not very motivated to reply when I've been trained that they usually won't return the courtesy.

I can comprehend this sentiment, but, on the other hand, I rarely find "thank you" emails add anything to the conversation. It's just sitting there, wasting few seconds of my time to read it, distracts me when searching for information in old conversations with zero information added.

What's worse, "thank you" emails also socially force me to add mere "be nice boilerplate" to mu future emails to that person, instead being short and to the point. It's funny how technical, business, or fact based conversation can become unnecessary long and loose the focus with all that boilerplate.

On the other hand, being nice and polite is good in real life, on the face to face (or voice to voice) conversation, but, IMHO, just waste everyone time in email.

It'd be nice if we could send emails with a flag to skip the inbox. It'd still appear as a reply to the thread, but not add to the firehose.

I've developed a technique. Write a brief reply asking them to explain about specifics they have already investigated, so you can avoid repeating advice they've had from elsewhere. I have a few near standard responses.

I rarely hear back, and it acts as a filter for those who are willing to put in some effort.

That's actually how Stack Overflow feels at times.

Translated to the start-up terms it reads:

  Support email is my enemy.
Especially in application to a single-founder situations. You can't ignore support emails, you can't even lag answering them, because they are essential to establishing and growing the evangelist core, but they can easily eat ALL of your time.

There's a complicated trade-off between cultivating or supporting interest in what you've done and creating new things. For an academic like me, it's the trade-off between updating the CV and promoting your academic papers versus the necessary time needed to just do good new work

I'm sure 5 letters a day in 1961 was just as daunting as 50 emails a day is in 2012.

That is why I do not reply to (or even check) emails in the morning. It detracts you from important works and decisions. When I check them later in the day, I also try to set a quota of time to process them. When the quota is gone, less important emails must wait. Some may wait a long, long time, but I have not seen negative repercussions yet.

I have read about successful people who do the same.

I know this is not really the point of the post but on a practical level I'd recommend Text Expander (if on a Mac) to anyone sending repetitive canned responses. Huge time saver.

He must have been sufficiently flattered to respond to them. I would have put them in the fireplace after the 10th or so.

What if you sent a read notice? That would let the sender know that you have seen the email.

Damned if you respond. Damned if you don't.

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