Saturday, February 9, 2013

The elusive 'Reply' button

I'm shamefully (or do I mean unashamedly?) indifferent to a lot - traffic, crime, politics do not move me too much. But what makes me truly, deeply angry is rudeness. And I find myself thinking about this subject frequently. When you're rude to someone, you're telling them, in effect, "You don't matter". Not enough for me to bother about your state of mind. These three words are perhaps more cruel than 'I dislike you', or even, 'I hate you', because they hurt that part of our being that tells us that we're worthwhile, that we bring value to this universe by being part of it. You could, of course, say that it would be a very fragile sense of self worth if one allowed every act of incivility to hurt it. But if I did inure myself to impoliteness, would I also, eventually, become uncivil?

Not that I have a lot of right to complain. I'm surrounded by kind, generous people who are unfailingly polite and who forgive my own acts of ill-manneredness more often than not. Where I suffer most often, is when people ignore my emails. An unanswered mail, particularly when it contains a question, makes me angry at a very primal level, because I hear those dreaded words - you don't matter enough for me to acknowledge or respond to your message.

I was upset enough today to run a Google search on this. Wondering if I was acting needy or clingy for expecting prompt responses to mails, I typed "is it rude to not respond to an email" and got about 12,100,000 results. I performed a meta-analysis over the top 10, and below is a summary of this 'robust' sample:
  • 40% articles say that it is rude to not to respond to an email within a couple of hours of receiving it. "To ignore an email sent to you in good faith, especially by someone you know, is to forget that you're dealing with a fellow human being, who deserves to be treated with respect, and even with a modicum of care". (Huffington Post).
  • 20% articles suggested that this could be an 'it depends' kind of scenario, where people who were deluged by dating requests or messages from salesmen could take a call on how they wanted to deal with the flood. 
  • 10% publications were of the opinion that responding to emails may clutter our lives. "I hesitate to e-mail those people who seem to reply immediately to every single message. It's like playing tag. You're it" (Joyce Carpenter in Computerworld Blogs).
  • 30% of the search results were irrelevant to the question.
And then I found these two absolutely delightful gems in NY times that pulled me out of self-pity, and made me laugh:
  • Though it would comfort us to think that these long silences are the product of technical failure or mishap, the more likely culprits are lack of courtesy and passive aggression.
  • Diana Abu-Jaber, a novelist, said that a few years ago she had “a whole nonrelationship” with a fellow writer in Portland, Ore., who would not hit the reply button.
There. Now I have the anger out of my system. I'm going to try and be less dependent on people's email behavior for my personal happiness. I will repeat to myself, it's not me, it's them. It's a continuing battle.

Click here for the brilliant NY Times article on the subject.


  1. Really well written, I agree with the first part in whole. If you want to make someone feel small and insignificant, just treat them with indifference. I gotta admit I am rather indifferent to people I have given-up on.

    About the second half of your article, about how not replying to an e-mail promptly makes you feel unloved, I think I have my reservations with this. Yes, its poor communication etiquette to not reply in time. And "in time" would vary from a few hours to a few days depending on the urgency of the matter (that's how I see it anyway).
    However, being a person guilty of the above, I gotta tell you its not out of rudeness or indifference that the reply does not get sent promptly. I have every intention of replying, in fact, I think its my need to send in a good, well thought through and well written reply that lends me to postpone it for another time when I can dedicate myself to the task. And sometime during this process, the good intention takes a backseat and forgetfulness/ laziness/ procrastination sneak in and take over.

    So, darling Manjot, as far as people won't reply promptly, yes, the problem lies entirely with THEM not you. However, to take offence at it and get upset about it and label it as rudeness and disregard for your feelings... well, I think this is your construct, and the only way to help it is to look at the matter through a different perspective, I think.

    Love ya!

  2. Dear Natasha,

    Thank you! I can always count on you for perspective! I'm going to try and see this from your point of view. But I found this great advice on Huffington Post: If you find yourself short of time, and would like more time to think in order to create the ideal reply, how about hitting the reply and just saying this - "Thank you for that idea/thought/writing to me. You made me happy by thinking of me! I'll get back to you with a detailed mail in a day or two."
    My friend Anal Ghosh does this. Even in the middle of a 16 hour work-day, he will hit the reply button and say - "I'm drowning in work, I'll send you a proper reply as soon as I can. Love you!"
    But I'm going to take your advice, and try and be less sensitive.

  3. Yeah, same here. That's why I love how you reply to all my emails.

  4. This comes at the expense of sounding a bit detached, but zooming out and looking at such situations (and/or other situations which require a certain form of presumed etiquette) from an abstract level, we just might be able to let people be who they are if we just let them behave the way they naturally do. In return, we get to understand a whole lot more of the finer parts of being of the people around us.

    Though our own excitement or urgency (or may be both) in the given situation may be in direct conflict with taking on a refined or crude version of the above perspective, the trade-off probably comes down to what we want more.... or is it 'need more'.


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