Some weeks ago, I emailed a professor to ask for an interview for a story. Seconds later, I got his out-of-office response.
“I am out of the office and expect to have only infrequent email access,” the message said. Pretty standard stuff. He’d respond to my email when he returned. Then I kept reading.
Thank you for your message. Email received between [these dates] will be deleted from this server eight hours from now. Please send your message again after [this date].
My bewilderment quickly mutated into offense. This out-of-office message seemed to flout all the rules of email that we, as an internet-based society, had imposed on ourselves and others—and it was doing so unabashedly! Of course we’re allowed to not check email while we’re on vacation. That makes perfect sense. But to not check what arrived when you were gone, to not spend hours “digging out” upon return? To avoid it altogether? To extricate oneself, a cog in the email machine, while the rest of us remain? How dare you?
A minute later, it hit me. My reaction doesn’t seem ... healthy.
But of course, nothing about email is, or has been for a long time. As Adrienne LaFrance wrote in these pages in 2015, people don’t love email like they used to. “Culturally, it went from delightful to burdensome, a shift that’s reflected in the very language of the inbox,” she wrote. “In the 1990s, AOL would gleefully announce, ‘You’ve got mail!’ Today, Gmail celebrates the opposite: ‘No new mail!’” Workers, particularly for whom email is a significant part of their jobs, have come to dread a stuffed inbox in the morning, and even more so after a weeklong trip.
Research has shown that returning to email after a brief hiatus can be stressful. In a 2012 study, Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies how information-technology use affects people, prohibited some office workers from using email at all for one workweek, and let others maintain their usual use. She strapped heart-rate monitors on all of them. Mark found that the participants who were cut off from email experienced significant reductions in their stress levels, as indicated by changes in their resting heart rates. When people return to their regular routine, so does the stress, she says.
The best (worst) part is, Mark and her colleagues had trouble recruiting participants who were willing to go without email for five days. Our dedication to it runs so deep that even a brief intermission seems unrealistic. In the case of the out-of-office message I received, my implicit commitment to email, to the whole system, was so fixed that when I witnessed someone trying to break free, it felt wrong. And it seemed unfair.
Mason Peck, an engineer at Cornell University and a former NASA chief technologist, the owner of that out-of-office reply, recognizes that. But he had gotten to a point where he felt he could no longer handle the volume of distracting emails, he says, so he took drastic action.
“It’s a little cynical, I know, but I typically see emails as an uneven balance of trade,” Peck says. “Every email I answer, on average, helps other people more than it helps me.”
Mark has found in her research that email maintenance is about being in control; for some, the closer we get to inbox zero, the more say we feel we have over a never-ending stream of communications. Peck is similarly trying to gain control over his inbox.
“I don’t have to worry about your message unless you decide it’s important enough to repeat it,” he says. The system places the burden on the sender rather than the recipient, which may seem unfair. But Peck says it saves him extra stress—and it’s his inbox, after all.
“I feel better,” he says. “When I come back from vacation, I feel like, okay, I’ve got a fresh slate.”
Mark says she isn’t a fan of this practice, particularly because it upsets the balance of a delicate ecosystem in which participants, on average, share the burden. “This social system functions well because there’s this assumption that everybody plays along. I respond to email because I want people to respond to my emails. I do a favor for someone because I expect they’re going to do a favor for me sometime,” she says. “If one person drops of out of email, it kind of breaks that system and leads to people getting upset, and the burden is going to be distributed maybe unevenly.”
I had a similar reaction two years ago when my colleague Jim Hamblin suggested a new approach to email etiquette, aimed at reducing the amount of time we spend on email. His proposal: Emphasize brevity, skip the sign-offs (“best,” “cheers”), avoid greetings (“Write the recipient’s name if you must. But most people already know their names”), and keep the messages three sentences or shorter. In other words, don’t write emails like everybody else. In this way, Hamblin was, like Mason, breaking the system. But also like Mason, he was doing it for his sanity.
It seems pretty melodramatic to promote a utilitarian approach to email, to expect that everyone should respond to emails or write them in certain ways for the benefit of everyone else. It’s not the right system, Mark says, but it’s the one we have. “We are just caught in this web of social interactions,” she says. “And in some ways, I sometimes think that we’re prisoners in it.”
Mark says companies could institute bans on after-hours messaging to reduce the flow of emails—and give employees a break. She cited a proposed law in New York that would make it illegal for business to contact employees by email or instant-messaging services when those employees are scheduled to be off. This is reality in France, which last year enacted a “right to disconnect” law that allows workers to ignore work emails after business hours.
Or we could design email services that not only scan emails to determine their priority levels, but that take action, too, like scheduling the meeting someone emailed you to set up.
“Until we get to that point where we can off-load some of the menial work into some intelligent system that can handle a lot of this stuff, we are kind of stuck,” Mark said.
I asked Peck whether he worries about missing a very important email from someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t send it again once Peck has returned. “I can’t think of a life-changing, critical email I’ve ever received,” he said.
Fair enough. Surveys have shown that most emails we receive are pretty useless. As my colleague Joe Pinsker reported last year, an analysis by Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, found that “roughly a third of messages did not clear the bar of needing to be seen at all, and only about a tenth of emails were considered important enough to need to be read within five minutes of receipt.”
But what about the simple dread of thinking you might miss something important or useful, if you delete en masse?
“The remorse or that fomo that there’s going to be some piece of knowledge that we wanted but we didn’t get—we kind of just have to let go of [that],” says Tiago Forte, the founder of Forte Labs, a productivity training and media company, who has written about best practices for email management. “It’s a fundamental property of scarcity thinking: If valuable information is scarce, then of course you need to be vigilant that you’re not going to miss anything. But when we’re just immersed in valuable knowledge 24/7, 365, that fomodoesn’t really make as much sense anymore.”
In some ways, Peck’s system is part of a growing trend of more honest out-of-office messages. More than a decade ago, such responses were straightforward—you’re out now, you’ll be back later. But then our online lives blended with our offline ones, the internet became real life, and we were never really quite “off,” especially in jobs that increasingly came to expect we always be “on.” Our absences in this hyper-connected environment became more apparent, and perhaps even felt less justified. So people started injecting more details about their absences, about the myriad of nonwork things that demand their time, to invoke some understanding from the senders eager for their response.
Consider this out-of-office message from the writer Merlin Mann, which Marci Alboher wrote about in The New York Times in 2007. “If your note can possibly wait until next year, please consider not sending it now,” Mann’s message said. “You’re welcome to use this form for a personal note, but please (begging here) be generous about understanding I can’t possibly respond while I’m cleaning a poopy baby bottom.”
Or this one, from Michael Merschel, an editor at The Dallas Morning News, which Emily Gould wrote about, also in The New York Times, in 2015: “If you are annoyed with me for leaving the office, I want you to imagine a middle-aged man who fell in love with a beautiful baby girl almost 18 years ago, and now he is driving her to a gigantic college in a distant city filled with all kinds of people who do the things people do at college ... and he has to leave her there. And drive home alone. In the dark. In a minivan. Alone.”
Or this message from Daniel Mallory Ortberg, the writer, which Gould also reported on, and which mirrors Peck’s reply: “I am currently on vacation and not accepting any emails about anything. I’m not planning on reading any old emails when I get back, either, because that feels antithetical to the vacation experience.” Its subject line? A simple “nope.”
In this regard, Peck’s out-of-office message is perhaps the most honest of them all. He simply doesn’t have the time for this, the message declares, and, anyway, most of the emails we receive each day don’t matter.
“What seems to be dying is the presumption that every email is a personal message from one human to another, which therefore deserves some kind of acknowledgment,” Forte says.
The first email I ever received, nearly 20 years ago, felt like that, like a precious letter. It was from my dad, who set me up with my first email account, a Yahoo address, when I was 10. “Now we can send messages to each other whenever we want,” he had written. And everyone did. Over the years, as the flow of emails has transformed from a drizzle into a deluge, we created folders and filters and labels, granted access to algorithms to scour their contents, and archived message after message until the little red notification dot disappeared. Our email boxes became a boundless ocean of mostly useless things and a few useful ones, waiting for us to wade in every morning. But as we lowered ourselves into the water, trying to keep our heads above the surface, we could at least take some comfort in the knowledge that we were in it together.