The Underestimated Elegance of Email

Social media accounts/feeds/etc. are like mushrooms—they pop up fast, they blow up fast, they’re highly visible, they burst with umami flavor, or they poison consumers.

But mushrooms are only small parts of the organisms which grow them. Most of the fungal activity is underground, out of sight, in the mycelial network. That’s like email.

True, emails aren’t as private as most people believe. But compared to Facebook/Twitter/TikTok/etc., emails are hidden.

More importantly, emails are a much more robust network of online social connections. Even more people have active email accounts than Facebook accounts. Whereas social media platforms can disappear (RIP MySpace) or change how they operate, emails have such cross-platform compatibility that moving an email list from one tech service provider to another is workable, unlike, say, moving one’s YouTube subscribers directly to one’s Instagram’s followers. And part of that robustness is the higher level of privacy—people will say things in emails they aren’t willing to say on Twitter, and that fosters a higher level of honesty and trust.

My KonMari tidying festival in 2019 shifted how I dealt with emails. I never did a full digital KonMari—that is, applying the KonMari method to all my digital files and online accounts. But some principles bled through. I became much quicker to respond to emails which mattered, and to discard the emails which didn’t. Before I had my KonMari festival, I had over 20,000 emails in my Inbox. Now it’s under 6,000. The vast majority of those emails are over 10 years old, since sifting through old emails to sort out which ones I want to preserve emotionally taxes me. I’m not Inbox Zero for the emails from the past year, but less than 100 emails in my Inbox now are under 12 months old (unless I got a sudden surge of emails while writing this post, lol).

The most important part of the above paragraph is that I respond to emails faster—and better.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve also initiated far more emails than I have before. Sometimes people respond, sometimes people don’t. Either way, I learn something.

Part of how people respond depends on what I do. The more generous I am in my emails—that is, offer more than I demand—the better the responses. A simple ‘thank you’ message is a great example of a generous email—it’s easy to understand, it gives the recipient a good feeling, and it doesn’t ask the recipient to do anything.

A challenge with learning how to email well is maintaining a positive attitude towards people who don’t reply. Just a couple of years ago, a long time without a response would make me worry if they hate me, or if they’re offended, or if I said something wrong in the email. However, by now, I’ve learned that’s almost never the reason someone doesn’t respond.

If someone is, in fact, angry about what I said in an email, they probably will respond. Things which often cause non-responses: landing in spam instead of the inbox, they are bad at managing their inbox, they got distracted before they replied, the email was so demanding they don’t know how to respond. Senders can mitigate these problems by a) attempting an alternative contact method (to check that emails are not landing in spam, and also to get through bad inbox management) b) just resending the email (to deal with distracted recipients) and c) sending a less demanding email (if the email was too demanding for the recipient). Whether these solutions are worth the effort depends on the situation.

I’m still learning, through experience, the best ways to handle all this.

In 2021, I also launched an email newsletter. That requires a higher level of skill than just handling my inbox. Though my newsletter is almost six months old, I’m still learning plenty as I go along.

Emails, on the surface, seem so mundane. But the more I put my attention to improving how I email, the more beauty and power I find. While everyone chases the flashy mushrooms of social media, emails keep flowing underground in the internet’s mycelial networks.

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