Behind the Email

Sir Ken Robinson once said that university professors tend to consider their bodies mainly as “a form of transport for their heads.” “It’s a way of getting their head to meetings,” he said. Robinson was joking, of course, but today, especially with remote work on the rise, we can observe a similar pattern of disembodiment at work: People write emails as if they sent them to robots, not other people.

I run several newsletters, and you’d be shocked at some of the responses I get. To be fair, people often do expect to be heard only by bots and automations, but it’s a trend that is now spilling over into our peer-to-peer communication.

Just this week, someone personally insulted me and told me to “f*cking stop sending emails.” I get it. Everyone gets a lot of email. No one wants more, especially not the advertising kind. But how little responsibility we are bringing to the table here shows how thinly stretched our collective emotional capacity is these days.

After all, no one forced you to sign up to the newsletter. You did it. And if you don’t like it, you can also undo it, with a simple click on the “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of every single marketing email sent in the last 20 years. I’m always surprised to see how many people do not manage this simple task yet try all kinds of “code words” in their responses to get the emails to stop coming.

The other, more important aspect, of course, is that behind every email address, there is a human being. Always has been, always will be.

Would you go to your bakery and call the man behind the counter an asshole and yell at him to give you “some f*cking bread?” Of course not. You can see the cashier. You must look him in the eye. His mere physical presence demands a minimum of decorum, and 99% of people are happy to comply with the invisible rules of societal interaction 99% of the time.

In an email, however, it’s easy for those rules to fly out the window. Typing a quick line or two feels more like hacking together a snippet of code for the command console than making a request to a person, but the latter is what all emails are, no matter how much you wish them to be as efficient as an order given to an algorithm.

Most of your emails go to strangers or people you don’t know all that well. This is not a reason to be rude. To the contrary: It is a reason to be extra kind. The person behind the email knows nothing of your troubles. They have no idea why are you writing to them today. Equally, you do not know whether they are having a bad day or a good one. What if their dog died this morning? What if they only slept five hours because their baby kept crying?

A good rule of thumb for writing any email is that you should treat the recipient like someone who just traveled a long distance to meet you: Make sure you get to business and value their time, but also cut them whatever slack they might need.

There’s a person behind every email address who’s as deep and complex as you are. Be kind when you talk to strangers.