Sins of the inbox

Before we cancel in-person meetings forever, can we make email less annoying?

5 minute read
Here is the approximate number of emails I receive in an average workday. (Photo by BanduG via Wikimedia Commons.)
Here is the approximate number of emails I receive in an average workday. (Photo by BanduG via Wikimedia Commons.)

Back when I was a more patient and optimistic human (i.e., before I had spent years as an editor), I could not have fully comprehended what a colleague in the business shared over drinks. “It’s not the job that gets me,” she said. “It’s the emails.”

I thought of this again as that special brand of commentary surfaced in my feeds, in which we take a philosophical approach to the pandemic by pointing out isolation as a source of valuable life lessons. Here’s a popular one: now that many people are working remotely, we’re opining that the meetings we used to sit though could’ve been accomplished by email. But is more email really a way to improve our lives?

Of course, email is just like any other tool of modern working life: Slack, Google Docs, social media, offices with open floor plans. Not horrible in themselves, unless we make them horrible. My peeves, like yours, are subjective. And that’s OK. But as a person who works remotely with a team of colleagues in the hundreds, I feel qualified to expound on email gone wrong.

Who’s there?

Have you sent or received “Hi there” emails? These are otherwise productive messages between colleagues that begin with “Hi there,” and they’re so common (I've probably sent them myself in the past) I’m willing to accept that I’m in the minority here. I nervously came out against “Hi there” on Twitter a while back. “If you know me, it feels patronizing. If you don’t know me, it feels awkwardly over-familiar,” I said at the time—and people agreed.

“I’d rather have no greeting than ‘Hi there,’” said longtime BSR critic Cameron Kelsall, who knows a thing or two about email.

In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with jumping in after a “hi” or “hey" if you know the addressee. But as soon as you top your email with “Hi there,” I’m asking myself why, if you’re going with the two-word greeting, you’re not using my name—and why you sound like a pediatrician with too many patients.

Subject line sins

Part of the problem with email is the sheer volume of it. I like to think that some people who send superfluous emails just don’t realize firsthand how many emails are flying around. I have systems in place to manage the volume, like addresses and folders that I open, read, and respond to on a dedicated day of the week; or frequent reminders to the writers I work with about the subject lines that help me sort and track everything.

But a battalion of people are always working against the righteous cause of cogent subject lines. Instead of a brief, informative title for their missive alerting me to its contents (amid the 30 other emails I will receive in that hour), these folks prefer a single inscrutable word, introducing their message with subject lines like “pitch,” “review,” or “hello.” Do they think theirs is the only email arriving today?

And instead of underselling their message with meaningless one-word titles, some folks go the opposite route: emails that consist of a whole sentence in the subject line, and nothing at all in the body. This, to me, is a profound misuse of the medium. An email is not a text message or a sticky-note. If you’ve got something to say, don’t drop the recipient into a blank when she actually opens the email, making her hit reply just to figure out what you’re talking about.

If I’m working closely enough with people to divine their meaning or needs from a single sentence with no other explanation, those people have my number, or we’ve got a running chat. Others are welcome to send a proper email, not a decapitated line.

The avalanche

Speaking of email volume, let’s note one of the most pervasive and hopelessly irremediable failures of modern times—getting people to stop using CC when they should BCC.

Sometimes Twitter has the truth.
Sometimes Twitter has the truth.

I am far from the first person to point this out. I also realize that it is and always will be almost entirely futile to bring it up. I might as well try to clear all the stray cats off my block as ask people to stop sending group emails on an unnecessary CC. Especially if it’s a family email about potlucks or pictures of children, the CC guarantees an avalanche of notifications as everyone REPLIES ALL with two or three words. The only thing worse is a group text about planning a big brunch in the city.

True evil

All my email beefs up to this point are mere annoyances—matters of taste, ignorance, or laziness; or the human instinct to say it to 17 people instead of just one. But at least one email habit deserves jail time.

In my experience, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. Instead of writing a catchy subject line or otherwise approaching you with relevance, some PR professionals write their first message to you with “Re” in the subject line, like this one from last week: “RE: Study finds Gen-Z will be Celebrating a Prolonged 4/20 This Year Amidst COVID-19.” Some have titles like “Re: Follow-up.”

They know exactly what they’re doing: snagging my busy eyes with something inane that looks like a conversation I am already involved in, when in fact I am not and never will be. It’s clever, completely amoral, and an instant, everlasting ticket to the spam folder.

The coronavirus lockdown will change us for a long time to come—maybe forever. If one of the changes is a permanent surge of emails, can we do it better?

Image description: a 2018 tweet from Awesomely Luvvie that reads “Jesus invented BCC so we don’t have to get inundated with 25 emails of ‘yes’ and ‘sure.’ PLEASE RESPECT JESUS AND USE BCC IN EMAILS YOU SEND TO A GROUP OF PEOPLE.”

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