Like it or not, email breeds a curiously strong sense of obligation. The more unread messages we have in our inboxes, the more guilty we feel. The more time that passes before we can reply to a message, the more we apologize. A representative tweet from writer Marissa Miller:
Even if it takes forever to get to it, we still can’t shake the feeling that we owe everyone a response. For family, friends, and coworkers, this seems natural. We have long-standing relationships with them, so feeling an obligation to reply to their messages makes sense. But what about complete strangers? Why do we feel guilty if we can’t respond to someone we don’t even know?
It turns out that numerous experiments have shown that humans tend to adhere to the rule of reciprocity in social interactions. At its most basic level, this means that we want to respond to a positive action with another positive action. If someone does a favor for us, we want to return the favor, even if—and this is the crucial distinction—that favor wasn’t something we necessarily wanted.
Sociologist Phillip Kunz proved the unexpected power of the rule of reciprocity with an unusual, DIY experiment back in the 1970s. He made up hundreds of holiday greetings, each including either a handwritten note or a card and a picture of Kunz and his family. Then around Christmastime, he mailed the holiday cards to 600 perfect strangers.
Amazingly, a wave of replies started coming in soon afterward. Some people responded with lengthy three- to four-page letters updating him on their lives, while others sent pictures and shared news of their families. Kunz ended up receiving over 200 responses in total. Even more incredibly, he continued to receive holiday cards from many of those strangers for another 15 years.
Would you respond to a holiday card from a stranger? The mere notion probably sounds laughable in these days of dwindling snail mail. But what about replying to an email from a stranger? I bet you’ve already done it many times and will no doubt do so again in the near future.
Although we might not think of getting an email from a stranger as a “favor,” the rule of reciprocity isn’t always rational. The mere fact that someone took the time to write to you activates a deep-seated social behavior: the desire to reciprocate like with like. In most social situations, of course, this is good—it leads to the type of cooperative human behavior that has served us well as a species.
But in the context of email, it can bite us in the ass. Not because email shouldn’t adhere to the same conventions as other social interactions, but because email isn’t subject to the same physical constraints as other social interactions. For instance, you used to have to meet someone in person to get their mailing address—or at least find a printed directory for their city—which would then enable you to send them a holiday card. (Kunz, for instance, found his test subjects in the phone book.) But no one needs to meet you in person to get your email address; if it’s posted on your website, anyone who has access to the internet has access to you. And the barrier to entry is lower too: You don’t have to worry about finding stationery, having good handwriting, or paying postage. All of which leads to an imbalance in how much email you can receive (a seemingly infinite amount) and how much you can actually respond to (a limited amount).
This is where advances in technology clash with the rule of reciprocity. We still feel a strong desire to reciprocate when someone sends us a message, yet we rarely have the bandwidth to respond to every single message. The upshot? That nagging sensation of email guilt.
It’s helpful to take a few cues from our more relaxed attitude toward good old snail mail. If you got 200+ letters a day, you would never think it was realistic to respond to all of them. Why should email be any different? Your time is limited, and you can only respond to so much. We understand this intuitively with regular mail, but with email, it’s still a struggle. To recalibrate your expectations, try picturing the messages in your inbox like a stack of real, physical mail. Visualizing your email as a physical object gives you a more realistic understanding of how possible—or impossible!—reciprocity really is. This encourages you to make hard choices about which messages deserve a hand-crafted response, which can tolerate a templated reply, and which do not warrant a response at all.
If we want to learn how to break free from the time-sucking tyranny of the rule of reciprocity, we must learn how to say no to some of the emails in our inbox. Of course this is easier said than done. If you tend to be a people pleaser, it’s hard to ignore genuine requests or turn folks away just because you are busy. Below are a two questions you can ask yourself to help clarify which emails are real opportunities and which are duds.
Is the email asking for something specific? If you’re not careful, there’s a certain type of email that can be a real time-suck: the unclear ask. Often well-intentioned people who admire something you’ve created or are interested in your expertise will write you an email asking you to hop on the phone and “explore synergies” or “brainstorm ideas.” They obviously respect your work, which is flattering, yet what exactly they are asking for is unclear. If I’m intrigued, my policy for this type of email is to write back asking the person to clarify exactly what they want. If they’re not willing to go the extra mile to specify their intent, they’re probably just going to waste your time anyway. And if they do clarify, then you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re getting into.
Are they respecting your time, or is this a blind pitch? The world is filled with people who want to pitch you their idea, their services, or their product. Assuming you didn’t solicit the pitch, remember that you don’t owe anyone in this category a response. Assess whether you were sent a template email: Did the person take the time to learn about you specifically and tailor their pitch? If they did and you’re interested, that’s worth responding to. If you’re not interested, write them a concise no-thanks email if you have the bandwidth. And if they didn’t take the time to do their homework before pitching you, rest easy knowing that you can consider the email spam and ignore it.
Remember: Your unread message count is not an audit of your productivity. It’s time to let go of inbox zero—and the guilt that comes with it. Our daily work should be about leaving a legacy, not just keeping busy.