These past several weeks, I’ve found myself brooding even when there wasn’t anything especially bad in my life. All I could think of that could have affected my mood, were some emails I’d sent to friend-acquaintances. These were people with whom I’ve socialized in both personal and professional capacity: not close enough to raise the possibility of a friend-breakup, but also not far enough that ghosting or silence is just a matter of business. In short, I had assumed that there was enough social capital there to expect a reasonably prompt response of any kind. When my emails went unanswered for *weeks*, I wasn’t heartbroken, but definitely miffed.
One of them eventually replied on her own accord. I followed up with another one twice before she wrote back apologizing profusely and explaining that there was a family issue. I took that explanation at face value, but it didn’t exactly restore my faith in digital etiquette. Even before COVID-19, I’ve noticed that people let emails or texts go unanswered at their own pleasure. (Again, I’m only including people with whom I’ve established personal and professional connections, like actually having a drink or a dinner together.)
Since the quarantine, this seems to have become even more of an “okay thing to do.” This article claims “It’s totally acceptable to ignore most of your text messages right now.” The ignoring of emails/messages is right in line with the running joke on Twitter that starts with “canceling plans is okay” followed by a slew of not-okay things and ending with “do whatever it is you need to do to cope. xxx” Social obligations just don’t exist anymore, because you need to save your mental health! Ignoring people is a form of self-care!
Even though our society is encouraging the idea that etiquette no longer matters, ignoring people is rude. Adam Grant argued this convincingly in his New York Times opinion piece, “No, You Can’t Ignore Email. It’s Rude.” As a bestselling author and an in-demand professor at Wharton Business School, Grant is extremely busy and I would hate to bother him unnecessarily. But, I have a feeling that if we actually broke bread together and talked candidly about our personal and professional lives, he would respond to my email. “Being overwhelmed is not an excuse,” Grant says, and that includes the quarantine stress which, after all, everyone is facing.
Sadly, not answering has become a kind of an epidemic of its own. I know I’m not the only delicate flower who is hurt by this phenomenon. A friend of mine recently confided that after his texts to a friend kept getting answered days later, he decided to put their friendship on hold. The offending friend had explained that she couldn’t text because she was extremely busy—but she was also very active on Instagram stories. “It was clear that she did have time, just no time for me,” my friend said. “That’s fine, but I wish she would have been upfront and told me her honest feelings, instead of continuing to say things like, ‘I’m so sorry, let’s talk soon.’ Giving her the benefit of doubt ended up wasting my time as well.”
This doesn’t mean you should stay up every night until all your emails have been answered. Studies show that reducing email checking lowers daily stress, and that workers distracted by email experience a drop of 10 IQ points. But bear in mind that most of these email-stress studies focus on strictly work emails, which you wouldn’t just ignore anyway. With the other emails that fall under friends, family, and friends of friends, exercise your best judgment. I prioritize people I know, then strangers who have other connections (alumni or people who belong to my professional groups and social networks). I think about whether I already have a strong foundational trust with this person and how long the correspondence will have to be, before making the call to write now or later. But if it’s someone I “know,” I always email back at some point—and if over a week late, I explain and apologize for the lateness (and make up for it in warmth and length).
The fact that there is a crisis that’s sundering society should be even more of a call for social glue that holds everything together, which is the basis for etiquette. It’s nothing groundbreaking. This morning for example, a woman who used to be in a writing group with me years ago texted to just say how are you. I was in the middle of the a.m. bustle, but I took a few minutes to trade greetings and updates, without any other ulterior motive than just to act like a grownup human. It didn’t stop me from doing life-saving work or send me into a downward spiral of debilitating depression. It only left me feeling good, classy, and decent.
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Photo: Chad Madden via Unsplash