Or as the geekier folks often write it:
I really don’t know what causes it, but for some reason email seems to bring out the “me too” in many people.
You know what I mean: you’ll have a discussion – either a one-on-one correspondence, or more commonly, an exchange on a mailing list – and at its close or at some other juncture, you’ll get a completely content-free email (or collection of emails) from some of the participants.
Perhaps we feel the need to let people know we’re listening. Perhaps it’s the email equivalent of an head nod. The problem is, as I said, it’s otherwise completely content free. As a result, unlike an actual head nod, it’s difficult to ignore. Someone must download it, read it, determine its value (if any), and dispose of it.
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Email is an interruption
Imagine if a real-life head nod forced everyone involved to stop talking, look at you, and decide if your nod meant anything. Even if it only took a second, that would get very annoying very quickly.
It’s quite all right to take the floor if you have something to say. If not? Well, that’s really the point here:
If you have nothing to say, say nothing.
It seems simple enough. Before you dash off that next email reply – especially if it’s going out to a mailing list – look at it carefully. Are you actually adding value to the conversation? Is it something that your recipients will value? Will they want to see it? Do they need to see it? If not, why are you cluttering up their inboxes and stealing their valuable time? For that matter, why are you using your valuable time to do it?
The last word
My personal foible is my need to have the last word. All too often, I find myself replying to an email and thinking, “Why am I saying this? What’s the point?” All too often, the point is simply that I’m unconsciously attempting to establish some kind of position in the conversation by making sure I’m the last person with something to say.
Unfortunately, the value of what I have to say decreases, since at this point I’m simply finding things to say, rather than saying something that needs to be said.
Another very common cause of replying a little too often is the need to correct, clarify, or build on a point that someone else has made. All too often, it’s more about showing superiority than it is about clarification.
If it’s important, then fine; but be realistic about what’s important. Quite often, it’s not as important as you first think.
Think before replying
Now, I’m definitely not saying you should never reply. Obviously, it’s quite possible that people are expecting you to join in the conversation, reply to a point or question, or correct an error. If you have something to say, say it.
What I am asking is that you think twice. Take a second to make sure that when you do reply, your reply has a purpose. If not, perhaps you don’t need to reply at all.
I think you’ll find quite often that’s perfectly acceptable.
It’s in your own self-interest, too
So far, it’s easy to consider all this as purely altruistic – you’re doing this to help others keep their inboxes clear, but it’s not about your own, is it?
On the contrary, this is also a selfish move – and in a good way.
Of course you save time when you don’t reply to every random message you might be inclined to, but there’s more. For every content-free email you send, chances are there’s someone else at the other end who doesn’t get the point we’re making here, and will respond with another content-free email in response. And you know where that lands: in your inbox.
If you’re trying to tame the amount of email you receive, thinking twice before replying will actually help you get less email.
So if you need a selfish argument, here it is: replying appropriately will, as a side effect, also reduce the amount of email you have to deal with.