email is a failed state. time for a coup.

This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. This week, my partner and co-author, Charlie Warzel, is taking over to write about part of our research for our forthcoming book on the promise/peril of working from home.


Hi, I’m Charlie. In my day job I write about technology and other things for the New York Times. And I don’t mean to brag or anything but this past month I’ve read *five* different business books from the ‘90s and ‘00s on How To Be A Better At Email.

Skimming through roughly 750 pages of advice on Composing Succinct Subject Lines has broken my spirit in ways I thought were impossible, given this awful year. But buried within the corporate speak, I think there’s a lesson. It boils down to: Human beings are broken. As such, we build technologies to make our lives easier and then quickly undermine them.

Email is a perfect example. Here’s the inventor of Gmail six years ago lamenting what became of his glorious creation:

“There's a 24/7 culture, where people expect a response. It doesn't matter that it's Saturday at 2 a.m.–people think you're responding to email. People are no longer going on vacation. People have become slaves to email. It's not a technical problem. It can't be solved with a computer algorithm. It's more of a social problem.”

Grim.

The social problem is abundantly clear rifling through books like The Executive Guide To Email Correspondence and Email: A Write it Well Guide. These books mean well but there’s something uncanny about the content. They read less like a guide to writing effective emails and more like a manual for some alien species that has landed on earth and is attempting to learn its cultures and mores in order to blend in as humans. The phrase “netiquette” appears an alarming number of times.

I started reading the books this way — as if I were not of this species but instead trying to understand them. A few takeaways:

  • The humans appear deeply neurotic. Here’s an excerpt from The Executive Guide to Email Correspondence which suggests one must,

    “Pay as much attention to not answering your email as you do answering it.” It includes the following advice. “Nothing could be easier than writing an ‘I’m away from my desk’ message, right? Wrong. These automatic messages often send inappropriate business signals... For example, the message, ‘I’ll be on vacation next week…’ communicates unfavorable news. You’re on vacation? Does this mean you’re NOT working?...Even when you’re taking the well-deserved break, it’s a good idea not to brag about it (or even mention it).”

    (Well, fuck that.)

  • The humans praise email as informal, quick, and efficient but use the service in a stilted, inefficient way. The books spend hundreds of pages painstakingly outlining templates for every situation, like how to send a “request for cooperation” email. In one book there’s a section for “Delicate Situations,” which includes templates for emails on “re-assigning fault” “request for special treatment” “misplaced documents” and “refusal to participate.” These rigid templates essentially boil down to: be clear, don’t be a dick, attempt to respond like a human being.

  • The humans have a strange obsession with productivity. Each book’s meticulous guidance is framed as friendly advice designed to make your life easier and to make you happier and more successful. But a closer look suggests that, lurking beneath each tip and trick is an end goal of maxim productivity. The books speak gravely of “Inbox Clutter” as a fate worse than death and unreturned email as not only rude but an existential threat to a workplace.

Reading these books, it’s easy to see how we created the email monster. You can draw a straight line from those books to this 2019 New York Times op-ed titled, “No, You Can’t Ignore Email. It’s Rude.” It reads:

“I’m too busy to answer your email” really means “Your email is not a priority for me right now.” That’s a popular justification for neglecting your inbox: It’s full of other people’s priorities. But there’s a growing body of evidence that if you care about being good at your job, your inbox should be a priority.

This piece also suggests that “we all need to set boundaries” and that “people shouldn’t be forced to answer endless emails outside work hours.” This is the same doublespeak present in the decade-old email guides I read. Essentially: guilting you to give yourself over to the demands of others on your attention while also putting the onus on you to set up boundaries.

It’s also a recipe for failure.

As a technology, email is simple and beautiful — a nearly instantaneous universal standard for both one-to-one and mass communication that is equal parts permanent and ephemeral. It has the potential to free us from physical constraints like, say, the office. But, as with most technology, we’ve slowly transformed the parts that liberate us into a digital shackle. Rather than dismantle the culture of inter-office memos and Official Correspondence, email absorbed all of its formalities, anxieties, and oppressive mundanity. Then it weaponized them by making it readily accessible at every moment of the day. This is a corruption of the promise of email, not the intended result. If the original pitch for “electronic mail” was: What if you could get that expense report memo...DELIVERED TO YOUR BED AT 6AM EACH MORNING?! I doubt there would’ve been too many takers.

Because email is primarily a human problem, it seems foolish to suggest we’ll solve it. But changing the way we approach email — and the others’ emails — may change how we approach work. Ironically enough, the approach is the same as the mid aughts email books I skewered above: Be a human. But, like, actually human.

In this newsletter, Annie’s written at length about the perils of LARPing one’s job and performative work (email is a prime example). But another offshoot of this phenomenon is our culture’s valorization of being busy. In 2014, then-TechCrunch editor Alexia Tsotsis aptly coined complaining about email overload as "a success problem.” I’ve always loved that phrase. It’s like a humblebrag about your misery. A miserybrag. Six years on, we’ve only fallen deeper into this trap. Our complaints about email don’t attempt to address the root of the problem, they seek to advertise how popular we are. Look at all these demands on our time! Just see how many people are trying to talk to us! We are important!

This, in my opinion, is the most insidious aspect not just of email, but modern work culture. By nature, work culture devalues us as humans. It takes our complex lives, desires and interests and strips us of them, attempting to reduce us to one-dimensional beings. But that inhumane process is disguised in a fog of busy-ness and productivity that makes us feel important. We don’t recognize how we’re re-ordering our lives because we don’t have the time. Constant inputs like your phone buzzing with a new email are propulsive and consuming. It’s a bit like junk food — delicious and easy to gorge on. But it isn’t nourishing. Busy-ness and productivity and the shallow idea of success are usually empty calories. When the endorphin rush of being ‘on’ and its attendant stress fade away, you’re left with a hunger for something more substantial.

One way out then is to break that cycle of performative busyness and formality inherent in the way we do email. In most jobs, this is easier said than done, but I have a suggestion.

Confront your fear and quit email for a week.

About five years ago I did an experiment where I convinced my friends and employer to lock me out of my email for a week. This sounds silly and indulgent (and yes, it is definitely part of my privilege as a technology writer) but what I learned was that, for the most part, nobody missed me.

I put up an autoresponder with my phone number and invited texts or calls. The people that needed me got through. The people clogging my inbox with their own performative busyness didn’t. That small bit of friction went a long way in giving me some needed mental space. And my worst fears about being out of touch never came to pass.

Your boss likely won’t let you quit email for good — and that’s understandable. But maybe you could talk with them about imposing a week’s email sabbatical. It might help you gain some perspective about how email fits into your life. Do you check it as a crutch? Is it a distraction from other parts of your life? Maybe you’ll find you have a healthy relationship with it. Who knows. But in my decade of writing about technology I’ve found the best way to understand and change your relationship to it is to remove it briefly from your life.

What stuck for me after the experience was the effect on my ego. The experience taught me that a lot of my email stress is self imposed. It makes me feel good to be needed. But it’s not always reflective of reality.

The real lesson came in how I started treating others. Once I rejected the idea of performative inbox busy-ness as a means of validation, I stopped emailing so much. As Annie wrote last week, I started thinking more about how I knowingly and unknowingly added to others’ work. I abandoned the cult of Inbox Zero and started treating email more like a feed — something that can’t be tamed or read to completion, but that can be curated. After all, email — like our Facebook news feeds or Twitter or Instagram timelines — is a dizzying array of inputs, many of which are barely even addressed specifically to us. [Note from AHP: an easy way to do this on Gmail = change your settings to “Priority Inbox.” The unimportant stuff just accumulates below, there if you need it, but not demanding your attention].

This may sound like career suicide, but there are ways to ease into it. First, treating email like a feed doesn’t mean not responding to your boss or urgent work emails. But it does mean setting expectations for people who want some of your time and attention. Like setting up an autoresponder that tells people you’re checking email less frequently with a short note suggesting alternative ways they can get in touch if it’s urgent. You can tell them when during the day or week you’re most likely to respond. You can remind them that you get a slew of email, so if they haven’t heard from you in a number of days, they should try sending it again.

For me, treating email like a feed had the effect of making email feel less urgent, less important. As a result, I’m maybe a little less responsive. People understand that and seek me out through different channels, which means I tend to get less urgent email. The whole thing has the effect of making me feel a little less important. And I think that’s a good thing.

Before I go, a short confession: Doling out advice like this makes me a bit uncomfortable. It feels a little self-helpy and even a little tone deaf in a moment where most of us are treading water trying to get through a pandemic, an election and overlapping climate, economic, and racial justice crises. I can see how one might read this Dude Advice as deeply indulgent and largely ignorant of the pressures and realities of life right now. That’s a valid argument. What I’m really arguing is that we’re trapped in a toxic cycle right now — one that is perpetuated by a value system that doesn’t respect our humanity and that forces us into compliance in insidious ways. Breaking that cycle is hard and it will require so much more than a few email hacks. These are band-aids on a gunshot wound.

But we have to start small. If we can’t show ourselves a little kindness and respect — a little humanity — it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to pass it on to others.

Things Charlie and I Read and Loved/Found Compelling This Week:

Things I (as in AHP) Wrote this Week:

  • Oh your body is falling apart, you can’t sleep, your stomach feels like shit, you’re getting rolling headaches and your misophonia is out of control? Same. I wrote about why.

  • The great interview from last week with Garrett Bucks was originally part of the reporting I was doing on QAnon and bourgeois white women — which developed into this much larger piece for Elle on “The Real Housewives of QAnon.

  • Side note: I’m trying to figure out what to do for a subscriber thread on Tuesday for Election — if you have ideas, email me!


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