That massive email

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Goodbye, cruel world. Photo by MARVIN TOLENTINO on Unsplash.

My laptop is going out of the window

That email.

It’s been watching you all day. Lurking.

You’ve skirted around it, and you’ve turned your attention to other things: to Slack conversations, to pull requests, and even to writing that API documentation that’s been dangling at the bottom of your to-do list for weeks.

But it’s still there.

And now you have nothing else to distract you.

You open it. A wall of text appears on your screen. It’s even got proper formatting and numbered lists. What on Earth is this gigantic essay all about?

You feel your energy escape from your soul via your eyes, sucked into the event horizon of wordy dialogue that must have taken the author hours to write.

You sigh and begin reading through it.

Time passes.

By the time you get to the end, you’ve lost your train of thought and have forgotten the points that you wanted to write in your reply. You scroll right up to the beginning of the email and start reading it again.

Like before, you reach the bottom of the text, but – surprise, surprise – it’s taken so long to read that you’ve forgotten what you wanted to say.

You sigh again, but for longer this time.

Frustrated, you try a different technique.

You hit the “Reply” button so that you can write your response in sequence as you read through it. The in-line reply window opens, and now you can’t fit your response and the original email on the screen at the same time: no matter which way you resize it, all of the text and boxes dance around like a marionette.

Your brow furrows and you scratch the back of your head.

Feeling inspired, you open a new window, side by side with the original window, so you can fit the email on your screen and concurrently compose your reply at the same time.

So far so good.

You slowly read through the wall of text, making bullet point notes on it as you go. There are about six main talking points that you’ve extracted, and you expend some effort in polishing them up to form a solid narrative. You read, then re-read what you’ve written.

It looks reasonable. You sound intelligent. That makes a change.

You move your mouse cursor towards the “Send” button. As you click, you notice a message popping up at the bottom of the screen.

2 new message(s) in thread. Click here to show.

Ah, damn it.

You click to show the messages. Two more walls of text. You read them both.

The first reply has said everything you’d already written. Why did you bother? At least your opinion has been validated.

The second reply is quite confused. You don’t think they’ve read the original email properly, and they’ve tailed off into the realms of the bizarre, almost as if they’ve translated the text into Spanish, then into French, then into Klingon, then back into English.

What are they on about?

A blip sound.

1 new message(s) in thread. Click here to show.

You click.

It’s the original author’s out of office email.

A blip sound.

1 new message(s) in thread. Click here to show.

Oh, wonderful: your colleague who was very slow to write their initial reply has just chimed in on some points in the first email, taking things in a completely disparate direction.

You begin scanning the content to understand why they didn’t quite get the point.

1 new message(s) in thread. Click here to show.

Click.

Out of office again. Sigh.

You rest your head in the palm of your hand.

This conversation makes no sense any more, and you’ve been sitting here reading, writing and peeling apart these replies for 20 minutes.

You consider what your employer’s insurance is like on their equipment, and whether it covers your laptop “accidentally” launching itself out of the window in a bid for freedom.

Smash.

There’s a time and place for email

Let me begin by stating that email is brilliant. I love email.

It’s archival, the threading system works well, and since Ray Tomlinson sent the first ever message in 1971 (to himself, as a test – allegedly it may have read “QWERTYUIOP”), I would argue that email has done a fantastic job of bringing the world even closer together. The asynchronicity bridges timezones. Whole businesses are run via email communication.

Yet, there are times that email isn’t as good as other forms of communication. But let’s stay positive and look at what it’s good at first:

  • Archival notices. Since email hangs around forever, and since that it is easily searchable, email is perfect for making timestamped announcements that everyone will see and refer back to.
  • Newsletters. In my experience, whatever may feel like oversharing rarely is received that way. Sending out regular newsletters to your team, department or company is an excellent use of email to inform and increase your visibility.
  • Conversations with a narrow focus. Emails that cover one concise topic can allow people globally to contribute, assuming that the purpose of the message is to solicit opinion.
  • Follow ups to ratify decisions. After having a meeting or a decision point, a follow up email is a perfect way of putting in writing what has just happened so everyone is aligned.

So that’s the good stuff. But what’s email bad for?

  • Conversations with many active authors. The little story above is obviously an exaggeration, but “hot” email threads with lots of active participants begin to feel like a series of sliding doors. Everything gets confusing, communication is poor, effort is wasted, and nobody gets anything done. Consider a flurry of email thread activity as a signal to jump in a Slack channel, or do a video call, or start a shared document.
  • Anything requiring a quick response. Email isn’t like a DM, and comes with no guarantee of timeliness of response. People have very different approaches to their email. Some batch, some practice inbox zero, some simply get so much that they forget to reply. If you want a quick response, send a DM or make a call.
  • Topics that have many layers of context. Extremely complex subjects with many sub-contexts become extremely difficult to reply to. The email format doesn’t support levels of nesting without being fairly creative. Maybe another medium is better. If you feel like you need a deep breath after reading something complex, suggest another medium to discuss it further.

If you’re going to write an email for the reasons above, don’t. Please save others the pain!

Help your reader out

As well as using email for the right purpose, there are some ways that you can be courteous of the fact that when your recipients open your message, they are giving up their time to you.

For non-trivial email content, you can specify the actions that you want the readers to take, even if those actions are just to read it and do nothing else. The recipient, upon digesting the first couple of lines, can rest assured that even if a big block of text is coming up, they need only understand it, and not compose a short essay in response. They’ll thank you for it.

Additionally, for longer emails you can provide a short summary at the top to ease the reader in gently, or let them make the decision as to whether they want to read the whole thing or not. You may even find that as you write the summary, you can delete large parts of the proceeding text as they’re not needed after all.

And, if after all, it isn’t something that is best suited to being communicated via email, you could maybe try some alternatives:

  • Having a discussion in a private meeting room
  • Walking over to someone’s desk to ask them a question
  • Creating a Slack channel or group DM
  • Writing your thoughts in a shared document and soliciting comments
  • Going for a walk around the block to chat about it
  • Chatting about it over lunch
  • Just getting on with something using your best judgement

There’s plenty of alternatives that you could be doing rather than firing up Gmail.

So, in summary

Be a good email citizen. Otherwise this laptop gets it.

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