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On Not Responding to Email

“Henry David Thoreau, writing in 1854, remarked: ‘I never received more than one or two letters in my life…that were worth the postage.’ What would he make of the modern email inbox?”

The central problem of the modern age (for many of us fortunate enough to live comfortably in the developed West), it has been observed, is one of abundance: too many films to watch; books to read; events to attend; budget flights to catch; tweets to scroll through, text messages to open; and, for our purposes today, emails to respond to. Of course, in centuries and decades past, people were busy too—in many cases, even busier, since they tended to work far more hours. However, today, particularly due to the central role the Internet has come to play in our lives (as well as how interconnected we have become), there is likely a greater breadth of things demanding our attention, ever shortened, constantly pulling us toward ever more instantaneous action or response. Moments of unmolested contemplation seem increasingly scarce. (1)

It is not uncommon to notice friends and family members having thousands (or even tens of thousands) of unread emails. Surely, not all of them are personalized (“Dear Larry”-type) notes, clearly necessitating a response, but some almost certainly are, increasingly crowded out by the endless invitations to events, marketing emails, favors requested, and the like. How often I hear something to the effect of: “I meant to reply, but my inbox got flooded.” In the field, in which I work (i.e., journalism), so many personalized and courteous queries are increasingly left unanswered. 

In my own career, here at Merion West in particular, this magazine has always prided itself on providing a response to submissions exclusive to us or personalized interview requests. Of course, the occasional one may slip past us, and for that I apologize, but, at risk of tooting this magazine horn, I think this is rather unusual. Ask any up-and-coming (say, Wikipedia Page-less) writer, and he will tell you that he often does not receive a response, even when pouring his proverbial heart and soul into a given submitted essay or poem. And this is also true of would-be entrepreneurs, as well. (2)

And, unfortunately perhaps, at times, also for old friends hoping to reconnect or students reaching out to a professor with a thoughtful question. 

I would never be one to argue that one necessarily has a positive duty to reply to all correspondence—any more than I would suggest that one must always go out of one’s way to pick up a sweater left on a stadium bench and take it to the lost and found or to help a confused tourist find the museum he is looking for. If one is in a particular rush or for some reason is unable to render assistance in a non-life threatening emergency, then by all means, he can proceed with his day. But when a person puts himself forward seeking contact with the public, for instance, by listing his email address publicly, whether requesting article submissions, seeking out employees, or asking for feedback on his work, he should be courteous and respond to the queries he receives. (3) More than a matter of inviolable law, it is a matter of etiquette that when someone takes the time to craft a personalized email, it is polite to reply to it. (And, if personalized replies become impossible due to the number of queries received, at the very least a form email thanking one for his message can be set up.) (4)

As I suggested at the outset, never before has the risk run higher of a given person being completely overrun by digital correspondence, or the world of technology in general. It is quite easy—if one is not careful—to spend his entire life in the secondary, virtual world rather than in the primary, physical one. As I discussed with Slavoj Zizek when he joined me in January for a discussion about his book Freedom: A Disease without a Cure, we increasingly inhabit a world in which many of us spend more hours per day in front of a screen than not. We have read of chief executive officers (CEOs) of major corporations—such as American Express’s Steve Squeri—spending three or more hours at the end of their work days simply replying to emails. Certainly this is far from desirable, especially when, as has been often pointed out, we know that few of our best memories in life involve being in front of a screen and when simply powering down our phones and computers can be now considered a downright revolutionary act. 

Henry David Thoreau, writing in 1854, remarked: “I never received more than one or two letters in my life…that were worth the postage.” (5) What would he make of the modern email inbox? 

This is all to say that I am sympathetic to the argument that concentration is precious and ought to be conserved—not even to mention the benefits to creativity and productivity that accrue from being relaxed and not overwhelmed. (What was Ernest Hemingway’s advice? Leave a little gas in the tank for the next day.) But in reply to those who irresponsibly argue in favor of leaving an email unanswered or, worse yet, that “ghosting” is acceptable in one’s romantic relationships, politeness must retain its rightful place. 

And there are also solutions: The aforementioned CEO’s company might find it in its budget to have an assistant help him answer some customers’ correspondences, or one might set aside a couple of hours per month to reply to emails that have accumulated (I am perfectly fine with delayed replies; even when it comes to writing thank you notes for wedding gifts, does he not have at least a few months, if not a year?). And, sure, occasionally an email or two might slip through the cracks. 

Related to this entire conversation is a question I have pondered often, and it concerns different approaches to engagement with the world, perhaps most readily summarized as the differing approaches respectively championed by business professor Adam Grant (at one time) and by investor (and Internet guru) Naval Ravikant. At one time, Grant prided himself on readily helping just about anyone in the world who reached out to him and asked him for help or for feedback about their work. I even took him up on this more than a decade ago when I was a student at Duke University, corresponding with him about my interest in the philosophical idea of altruism for a piece I was then working on (and, in fact, am still working on). This was tied to Grant’s idea of give and take, in which many of the most productive and successful people in business gave and helped others without expecting anything in return. As such, being generous with one’s time was expected, and this could take the form of offering to provide assistance to someone getting in touch out of the blue. (6)

This approach is quite different from one frequently put forward by Ravikant, a proponent of the “Better bored than busy” approach. His target audience admittedly tends to be the ambitious, with a tendency already toward becoming busy bodies, rather than those with a natural propensity for sloth. If Jordan Peterson is the guru of the unmotivated, Ravikant is the one for the overcommitted. Famous for aphorisms like “Guard your time. Forget the money,” Ravikant would be sensitive to Blaise Pascal’s famous observation that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Ravikant, whose approach clearly though has an Eastern aura surrounding it, does concede that he spends most of his day doing work but work that is focused and, crucially, as liberated as possible from the unnecessary emails and meetings that populate so much of our days. (7) Also critical of networking, he would certainly depart from any notion that rising in the world (particularly the business world) is a result of doing favors, instead believing that it is the result of being the best in a certain area or creating the most perfected product.

Of course, as I discussed in my Merion West essay last summer “Should You Read the Same Book Twice?,” one’s time is always limited, and how one chooses to allocate his time, particularly in creative endeavors, entails forgoing other possibilities. Late last month, the British-Swiss journalist and author Johann Hari, for example, made a rare return to Twitter to announce the release of his latest book, Magic Pill: The Extraordinary Benefits and Disturbing Risks of the New Weight Loss Drugs. Hari has previously published books on topics such as the abolition of the British monarchy, the war on drugs, depression, and (quite relevant for our discussion at hand) declining attention spans in the Internet age. His new book is about weight loss drugs, certainly an interesting topic, but one also thinks of all the topics potentially forgone (at least for now) in favor of pursuing that one. Perhaps he could have written about globalization, or the impact of tariffs on American manufacturing, or cancer research, or the health of the world’s ocean, etc. When Ron Howard decided to take on the project of the 2008 film Frost/Nixon, could he not have instead made a film about President Ronald Reagan’s insistence on keeping in the line by Peter Robinson “Mr. Gorbachev, Tear down this wall!” against the advice of his advisors in the State Department or about the fraught recount in Florida in 2000? As any editor or director would tell you, time and resources are often the limiting factor in whether a project comes to fruition, and the good ideas are numerous. But it is also true that momentum, including in creative ventures, is very much real. What did Picasso say? “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” 

As I mentioned at the outset, in many respects, we are working less than ever today in many segments of the modern West. However, for certain segments of the population, the busyness is alive and well, and Keynes’ predictions about the amount of leisure time available per day in such a wealthy society remain largely unrealized. Books on burnout continue to be released at a steady clip. And, for many of us, our email inboxes serve as the most immediate barometer of the degree to which we are overwhelmed. In the past, we might have bemoaned “a wave you saw too late and couldn’t return,” but now we have endless correspondence left unanswered. But I still maintain that once one takes the step of putting himself out there as a responsible seeker of communication with the public, certain responsibilities flow from that, and one is to make a reasonable effort to answer correspondence—and not just from the most prominent among us. 

In the late summer of 2019, Peggy Noonan, the columnist at The Wall Street Journal, authored a piece I think back on often. It was titled “Mind Your Manners, Says Edith Wharton.” In it, Noonan, taking the voice of Edith Wharton, scolds Americans on their declining manners, bemoaning variously pedestrians walking the streets with their eyes glued to their smartphones; fellow customers barking into their phones while in public; overly brusque responses; and, a personal favorite, the tendency too readily to address others by their first name. Her column hit on most of the essential improprieties of the modern age, minus one: Failing to reply to a thoughtful email.

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief of Merion West.

Endnotes

  1. For a more extreme example of the alleged relief of being removed from the constant demands of the modern world, including the smartphone and its endless pings, one can recall Martin Shkreli talking about some of the silver linings of his incarceration, one of which was his ability to read, as he tells it, 400-500 books. Since being released from prison, he has said he has only read a single book.  
  2. How often one’s emails receive a response, particularly to personalized cold queries, can be used as a gauge of sorts of his relative prominence in his field or, at least, how far along he is. For instance, when Elon Musk was young, he reportedly did not hear back from an internship he applied to, but few would likely ignore an email from him now. 
  3. Of course, to be clear, one need not reply to hate mail or insults or mass marketing emails—or to someone hellbent on beginning an unwanted correspondence and who is simply unable to take a hint. 
  4. When it comes to job applications, many applicants report never hearing back from the company to whose position they applied. In this case, it is likely true that the company would be unable to provide a personalized response to the sometimes thousands of jobseekers who got in touch, but a form email indicating that the position has been filled seems more than reasonable. 
  5. While I appreciate the sentiment on some level, this is a rather cantankerous comment, quite dismissive of well-meaning people who may have been sending him kind greetings. 
  6. This conversation is also related to this idea of breadth vs. focus. It has been said that journalists, unlike academics, know a little about a lot, whereas typically professors today know a lot about a little. (I have also wondered, relatedly, if the journalist side of this spectrum translates well to holding political office, given that members of Congress, governors, and the like often must make decisions about a wide variety of issues.) This also has applications to investing strategies; as Ravikant likes to argue, “The more you know, the less you diversify,” though, for most people, while pithy, this is probably not advice they should actually follow
  7. As Ravikant likes to say, “The overscheduled life is not worth living.”

Erich J. Prince is the editor-in-chief at Merion West. With a background in journalism and media criticism, he has contributed to newspapers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The News & Observer, as well as online outlets including Quillette and The Hill. Erich has also spoken at conferences and events on issues related to gangs, crime, and policing. He studied political science at Yale University.

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