Have you ever sent an email that received no response?
Have you ever read an email and deleted it without responding?
When people forward me emails (including group emails that they forward to twenty other people in addition to me) that I find interesting or helpful, I always try to respond with some kind of thank you.
Once, someone laughingly told me that I don’t need to do that.
“What do you mean?” I said as I wondered, Why is she calling me just to tell me this?
“Remember when you said you wanted me to tell you when you were doing something outside the norm?” she said.
(Well, yes. In an idealistic burst of self-improvement, I’d decided to take a leaf from the original mussar school and picked a couple of friends to tell me if they thought I was “off” about something. This was her attempt to help me.)
“Yes,” I said.
“Well,” she continued pleasantly, “people don’t generally reply to forwarded mass emails.”
“But why not?” I said. “If I found it useful, why not let the person know?”
She giggled. “Because people just don’t do that. It’s nice of you, but it’s not necessary. It’s unusual.”
“But why bother sending stuff out?” I said. “You have no idea if people appreciate it, were offended by it, received it or didn’t receive it…”
“That’s just how it goes,” she said. “And that’s the expectation. No one expects you to respond. It’s nice, but it’s not the norm.”
Of course, I ignored her "constructive" criticism and I still respond to useful forwarded emails, but I did see that she was right.
People often don't respond at all.
When You're Just a Meaningless Blip on Someone's Screen
- holiday greetings
- useful or inspiring links
- elegant e-cards (with an option for the recipient to reply immediately and free of charge)
- useful or inspiring forwards
- heartfelt insights
- photos or documents or information at the urgent request of the receiver
- direct questions
- and even heartfelt apologies with the sincere invitation for the other to open up to me about how they feel I've hurt them (which really puts you in a position of vulnerability)
(Or sometimes a general reply, but one that did not at all address the issues or questions within.)
Ironically, I’ve also ignored all the above when it was sent to me! (Okay, that's not completely true. I've never ignored an apology or heartfelt insights. Well, not as far as I know, anyway...) Why? Well, usually because I found the email problematic or offensive, and occasionally because I forgot or overlooked it.
But picture the same happening in a verbal conversation...
- What if you call someone to say “Happy Passover!” and there is dead silence on the other end of the line?
- What if you walk down a street and say Shabbat Shalom to your friend and she keeps right on walking without even looking at you?
- What if you would share your thoughts with someone (either about yourself or about them—whether positive or negative) and they just sat there staring straight ahead without acknowledging your existence?
- What if you asked someone a direct question and in response, they just hung up the phone
It would make a funny comedy sketch, right?
But in real life, you’d wonder if that person was upset with you, right?
You’d feel invisible.
The truth is, these things do happen in real life.
And when the other person is confronted, they either apologize and explain that they were so distracted or stressed that they simply didn’t hear or see you, or you get into some kind of a confrontation (hopefully, a useful and mild confrontation).
What email does is it habituates us to being ignored and feeling invisible.
We all just send each other stuff back and forth, and nobody responds.
Or maybe we respond, but it's a short response that doesn't acknowledge whatever was in the email.
There's a feeling of keeping in touch and connecting, but there's no actual relationship or communication going on.
So it fractures human communication either way. Either you:
- get too involved in a way that ends up being unhealthy and you send messages that you really shouldn’t have sent
- you get used to the fact that what you share and contribute is of no interest to others—your existence doesn’t matter to them.
As time went by, I really thought that I understood how to use email in a healthy manner.
But I kept on stumbling into email potholes.
I guess I haven’t found the right balance yet.
I feel I need it to keep up at least minimally with certain people. There is a lot to be said for basic courtesy, civility, and pleasant relations.
And you do need it for business stuff, and for dealing with online stuff, like the Help desk for whatever service you’re using, sending documents and the like.
So I am going to keep trying to work on myself with regard to email usage. And there are some messages from Hashem in all that, too, with regard to how I need to improve myself and generally improve the way I relate to others.
But a lot of things like depression and loneliness have been rising in parallel to the rise of online communication.
And why wouldn’t it, logically speaking?
If you reach out and are ignored—or if you reach out and are slapped back—why wouldn’t you recoil into yourself?