The Lost Art of the E-mail Reply

I know it feels like they’ll go away if you just ignore them but guess what? They won’t.


Good afternoon, moonshine. It is 3PM if you are reading this story at its time of publish and I have accrued 43 e-mails in the time it has taken me to hit publish. About half of those e-mails will be going directly to trash (that there are still e-mails populating my inbox referencing Sochi seems like both a digital marvel and catastrophe). The other half will require responses that will consume the next 25 minutes, at least. Many of these responses will simply indicate my need to provide a simple yes or no answer while the remaining handful, the real chunk of time-consumption guised as typing, will require a bit more, let’s say, mental finesse.

To be clear, I am not the reply button whisperer.

I have convinced myself that 30% of the food I consume is food I consume in order to procrastinate hitting the reply button. I have also been told on a number of occasions, mostly from relatives, that I am atrociously bad at responding to e-mails. One time, my mom wrote to ask me if I wanted to have lunch on the day her e-mail was sent, and while I did reply yes, it was two weeks later. Just two months ago, the, how you say, situation got so bad that my dad cc’d my husband on an e-mail, subject title “Shame on Your Wife” about the four e-mails he’d just urgently sent me, which I didn’t answer, to which I wanted to respond: I have a phone number, dad. Instead I cried but that is neither here nor there.

I want to say it’s not my fault but of course, I know that it is. And I’m working on it –really, I am. A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail about attending an event for a new pacifier brand (yes, as in the baby prop) to which the old me would have never responded. But the new me politely declined the invitation and that was it. No harm, no foul. It was much easier than I anticipated it would be and frankly speaking, sure beat ducking my head every time a follow up e-mail hit my inbox as though the sender could see me and I was Carrie Bradshaw in that ridiculous(ly telling) episode of Sex and the City when she thought Aidan could see her through AOL. It got me on a reply-roll.

See, but once I got better at answering e-mails, I realized how terrible the rest of humanity — or at least the fraction of it with which I liaise — is at answering e-mails, which leads me to ask the question: when did it become okay to stop answering e-mails? You wouldn’t ignore a text, would you? Much the same way that if an interlocutor were to look directly at you and ask you a question, I’d put good money on the possibility that you wouldn’t ignore his or her face either. So what makes leaving an e-mail, in this digitally golden age of communication, seem okay?

Of course, I understand that there are exceptions. Press releases don’t often require answers. Neither do, I suppose, rent payment reminders. But if e-mailing has become, as several pundits of expression have put it, the most efficient form of correspondence (speculation), what does that mean about our ability to successfully and perhaps more importantly, respectfully transmit information?

Allude to Snapchat’s escalating pervasiveness and I will definitely ignore your e-mail.

Illustration by Charlotte Fassler

Get more Humor ?
  • Michaela

    I would say 90% of my job is based on writing / reading emails… and I am still guilty of the non-reply. It is just SO EASY but you’re so right, you wouldn’t avoid the person if they were right in front of you so why is it OK to do so over email? I guess that’s why calling / seeing the person IN person (if possible) is so much better, but with emailing the new standard.. it’s time we (I) start treating it with the same etiquette as any other interaction.

  • GapToothedGirl

    I’m not a reply-girl, it annoying me…I prefer phone calls…direct, fast…
    XOX, Gap.

    • Amelia Diamond

      Phone calls are so much easier but I DREAD THEM

      • right? you can have the loveliest written relationship with a work contact and then on the phone… weirdness.

  • Hannah Elaine

    Oh boy… Definitely work on that. It does not define who you are, but it is hard to ignore the people who are pointing at you, saying “bad, bad”… I am in my emails all day as well, but I give equal respect to all replies and mental finesse.. I am saying that literally too, not kidding. In the years of me doing so, I am now known as one of the nicest people in my company and folks are not afraid to come to me knowing that I will not shove them to the side or just simply not reply. Work on it for sure.. it is an interaction just like face to face… and I think the fact that you even wrote about it, made you feel a lot better.

  • Emilia Petrarca

    Look what happened when Ali never replied to Noah…

  • I’m more inclined to answer an email than a text. Maybe because I am usually the one who has initiated the email, and thus have chosen to write and respond. They’re typically with people I don’t know in person, so I am much more inclined to get back.

    It’s horrible, but I just feel like it’s easier to ignore a text from a friend about a dress they bought or the like. I have to remind myself to give feedback in a text like that.

    My father says I have Selective Texting Syndrome. If he texts me to ask what kind of burrito I want from the dive-y Mexican place with dreamy food, I’ll get back to him in record time. If he asks me to find the document he left at home but needs at work, I’ll find it and give it to him but I’ll never answer a text about it.

  • Rose

    I mean, I don’t answer texts sometimes….I’m actually mostly better about answering emails, I think. Unless it’s a “form” email where they didn’t even bother to look up my name, etc and just send the same thing over and over, then, nope!

  • I loathe email, especially when it comes from people who have my phone number. (Sorry, mom. Just text me, I beg of you.) I’m currently in the process of zero-ing out my four boxes. Sucks.

  • Liz Warners

    My main method of communication in my volunteer coordinator position is email as well. Email is so non confrontational that I am very prone to procrastinating the reply. Even when people get fed up with waiting for me to reply and actually pick up the phone (gasp) I can play it off as “oh my gosh I cannot believe I did not respond! It thought I had!” Sometimes I even just play dumb like I never received it (spam folder anyone?). Its a horrible habit to get into, and I think I waste so much time on drafts of emails and losing emails and having too many folders that sometimes I wish it never existed.

  • Maisie

    Girl, you need to get yourself on!

    It won’t cure the press releases but it will definitely help with unwanted GroupOn emails about waxing and pacifiers.

  • I think it’s easier for me to ignore e-mails because of all of the shit that I’ve signed up for throughout the years. I get SO MANY newsletters and Twitter notifications and messages that specifically say “Do not reply to this email” and so it’s almost like I’m ENCOURAGED to direct every single e-mail in my inbox to the trash.

    I don’t get junk mail via text. I get communiqués from people that I generally *want* to talk to. That doesn’t mean that I won’t ignore them sometimes, but it happens substantially less than on e-mail.

    So I guess less machine-automated messages = more replies?

  • ee_by_cc

    I usually don’t INTENTIONALLY leave emails unanswered. It’s more like I get the email and don’t want to answer immediately. Why? I don’t know if there’s any one reason but I suppose it could have something to do with not wanting to seem like a loser (i.e. I have nothing better to do but troll my own email all day…)/I don’t want to be so accessible/I want to think of something super witty for my reply/that Snowden guy made me slightly paranoid…

  • I’m super paranoid about emails. I have multiple inboxes: one personal, one for junk mail (newsletters, marketing, etc.) and one for blog-related emails. This way, I can enter each inbox in the right mindset. Next, I’m a huge believer in using the ‘Archive’ button and deleting emails! Anything that I need to act on stays in my inbox, and anything that I’ve replied to / finished gets archived, and anything that is pretty unimportant and I’m done with gets deleted. I try to zero-out my inbox every night– helps me sleep better! I hate leaving people hanging so this method just works well for me.


  • Jessica

    Found this for my boss. She LOVES me for it.

  • Tara Edie

    I am a guilty email idler…while I love that emails often get right to the point without the fluff of small talk, there’s also little to no pressure for a response, so the “Hmm…I’ll think about it” becomes “Oops…”. I’m more responsible in real time.

  • Ugh.. I was once that awful person who always forgets to respond to emails. I try to be better about it now, I just have to convince myself to respond to one to get the ball rolling, haha

    — Michelle |

  • Tracy

    I am not the reply kind of girl…but I am working on that!

  • Andres Poiche
  • Victoria

    I’m pretty good at replying, I hate seeing those unread messages in my inbox, i can’t stand it when I see my friends’ 3547 unread messages. that little red number is menacing

    • Amelia Diamond

      I HATE THAT RED NUMBER. Phone acne!!

      • Victoria

        Especially when it’s an app update, like NO, leave

  • What a good post!!I have to say reading email is fun but then extra effort to answer the very same moment!!donno Why?! Because of that sometimes I tell to myself DO NOT open the email unless you answer it…Maybe because it takes time or I get lazier for answering but for some reason text message is not like that Reply fast .;)

  • So that’s why I get thanked so often for having replied! It’s you. And you. And you. 🙂

    (couldn’t conduct my one-person-business without answering mails but do not bother that much as a private person – I also cancel all unwanted newsletters straight away to keep it simple)

  • ShanIsRad

    My job relies on emails, so I try to answer them as quickly as I can. It drives me crazy when I don’t get a reply on something very important, so I do become the person that will call to get my response.

  • Cinamaron

    I am SO BAD with stuff like this. It’s not intentional. I always read the email/text/etc and decide to reply later, then forget to reply later and by the time I DO remember I am so embarrassed that I haven’t replied yet that I just don’t reply. It has definitely led to some friction with relatives. I don’t have this problem with work related stuff at least!

  • BasicallyMary

    Since I am an assistant and run someone else’s life I must answer emails. If not, I could fall victim like one of Henry VIII’s wives and loose my head. In my own personal life, I tend to not answer my emails. This led me to owing my old gym 500$s in collection fees. Help me I’m poor?

    • Aww, that’s the worse. You would think they’d pick up the phone in that situation, huh? Can we really be expected to keep up with our three or four email accounts? I know I sure do not.

  • Reading this article was one of those “AHA” moments. Bad email etiquette in general is a pet peeve of mine – and not replying at all is one of the most foul offenses. But this article got me thinking, psychologically speaking, is there a reason WHY we’re prone to shamelessly ignoring emails? And it occurred to me, maybe all of the spam, junk, and thousands of emails trying to draw me to the various retail sites I somehow keep subscribing to, have in a way conditioned me to place less value to email. Maybe deep in my subconscious emails are becoming less “sacred.” So I think for someone like you Leandra who is inundated with emails on a regular basis maybe this is happening to you too?

    Just eight o’clock ramblings.


  • mercy

    great post !
    tas ransel wanita

  • shminta

    ummm, i ignore text messages. often. i find that the faster and more consistently i respond to texts or emails, the more dumb questions, and therefore more texts and emails, get thrown my way.

    on the flip side of your question, i would ask, when did it become socially acceptable to bombard people with questions and requests and then get pissed if they didn’t respond instantly?