There’s no way to win at email—so we just need to relax our standards

An elephant never forgets, but even he might have problems with email.
An elephant never forgets, but even he might have problems with email.
Image: Reuters/Mike Hutchings
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I have 2,937 unread emails in my personal inbox. Some of those emails are newsletters and Lyft ride receipts and discount offers from the Gap. But some of them—an amount I do not want to ponder—are real emails meant for me specifically. There are notes from friends and long-lost classmates; young people starting out in journalism attempting to arrange coffee and chat. I have read these emails and marked them as unread, fully intending to get back to them later. And then I have not written back, because I am terrible.

Thankfully, there is a day designed specifically for people who share this plight: Email Debt Forgiveness Day, created in 2015 by the hosts of the internet-culture podcast Reply All. “If there’s an email response you’ve wanted to send but been too anxious to send, you can send it on April 30th, without any apologies or explanations for all the time that has lapsed,” the official page reads. (The focus of the day tends to be on non-work-related emails, since a message from your boss is a horse of a different color.)

Past Reply All episodes on Email Debt Forgiveness Day tend to double as confessionals, providing a rare window into the secret correspondence anxieties of humanity. One man wanted to send a note to his high-school girlfriend explaining that he stood her up for prom because he panicked, not because he didn’t care about her. Reply All co-host Alex Goldman recounted the tale of receiving an email from his former bandmates, proposing one last reunion show before the group’s drummer moved from Brooklyn to Kentucky. He couldn’t bring himself to write back. “It’s just the anxiety of having to say yes and then start preparing is causing me to not answer this,” he told his co-host. (Happily, he finally said he was in—six weeks later.)

Email Debt Forgiveness Day has been widely celebrated in the years since its invention, and with good reason. But I believe the holiday’s spirit of forgiveness—for oneself and for others—should not be limited to one day a year. The truth is that email is very hard. We might as well admit that most of us are well-intentioned disasters, and start changing the way we think about email etiquette.

There seems to be a growing interest in bringing about this cultural shift. Writing for New York Magazine’s Science of Us, Melissa Dahl recently made a compelling case that we should give up apologizing for our delayed email responses. Most emails aren’t that urgent, she points out; “it can feel like you’re supposed to answer immediately,” but the sender often doesn’t need a rapid turn-around response.

A recent Catapult essay by Melissa Febos points out that being “good” at email often means putting your own priorities aside to avoid disappointing others. Ultimately, in order to devote energy to her career, Febos decided to commit to an unreliable communication style and “sometimes just let things go. The goal cannot be to answer everything, even eventually,” she explains. And in her book Unsubscribe, Jocelyn K. Glei calls upon readers to reexamine their guilt complexes and stop pressuring themselves to write back to every email they get. “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,” she writes.

Once we admit to ourselves that we’re in over our heads, there are a couple possible responses. Some have gone so far as to declare email bankruptcy, deleting unread messages and sending a mass message asking contacts to write again if they still want a response. Glei suggests thinking of your emails the way you would think about snail mail, and letting yourself off the hook if the email isn’t asking for something specific or if it seems to be a blind pitch.

But what should we do about the emails that aren’t from strangers, but people we care about? Or the messages we want to send to beloved former teachers and mentors and others who have made a difference in our lives, yet keep putting off?

For this, I think, there is no system or solution—beyond accepting that most of us are flawed human beings muddling through our days as best we can, who sometimes let things get away from us. Setting aside truly urgent emails about things like freelance payments, I can’t remember a time when I’ve been upset that an email I sent went unanswered. A lot of the time, I forget that I ever sent a message in the first place. I’d like to think that most reasonable people feel the same way.

If we have something really important to say, we can always follow up again. And if we’re trying to communicate with a friend and email isn’t working, perhaps it’s time to try a different medium instead. I do volunteer work with a teenager who can take weeks to respond to email but is lightning-fast over text, so I adapted my communication style accordingly. And recently, a college friend gave me a call to let me know he was in town, aware that I was being generally slow to respond over text. We made plans for that same night.

Whether or not we respond to a message very often has nothing to do with how much we care about the other person, I think, and a lot to do with our own ingrained habits and neuroses. Most of the time, nobody’s mad, and everyone is trying their best. So let’s make generosity the default when it comes to email, and assume that the people we are trying to communicate with bear us general goodwill. Let’s throw ourselves on the mercy of each other.