Read it and weep: why is replying to emails so hard?

The psychology behind your inbox of red flags.

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Replying to emails is not, technically, hard. You click a button marked “Reply”, press some plastic keys, give your screen a quick glance, and hit another button marked “Send”. Yet despite the fact it’s not physically challenging in any remote, back-in-my-day-we-had-to-walk-15-miles-through-the-emails way, replying to the unanswered messages festering in your inbox can feel psychologically daunting.

For me, emails are like a playground game of “hot potato”. Someone unimaginably irritating has the audacity to chuck you one, you fling it out of your hands as quickly as possible, and spend the rest of the game (the game is your life, friends!) dreading the moment it’s going to get thrown back. Yet despite the fact I feel better if I reply to emails quickly, most of my days are spent being a digital dawdler, wasting hours holding the potato (to clarify, the potato is still a metaphor).

Why do I do this? Why is replying to emails so hard?

“The process of sending messages via email has gone from one that should be asynchronous – so there should be a respective delay between sending the email and expecting a reply – to one that is essentially synchronous in nature,” says Dr Lee Hadlington, a senior lecturer in cyberpsychology at De Montfort University. Hadlington explains this change means we are now under a constant pressure to reply to emails quickly and have all the necessary answers to hand.

Getting emails, Hadlington also says, is like gambling – in that “sometimes the email will be exciting or interesting, other times it will be another circular”. Combined with the fact we now carry our emails around in our phones at all times, this “gambling” means we can’t help check our messages at inopportune times, often when we can’t actually reply. As Susanna Wolff parodied in The New Yorker: “Sorry for the delayed response. I opened your e-mail on my phone while my date was in the bathroom, but then I saw that it required more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply, decided that was too much work, marked it as unread, and then forgot about it entirely until just now!”

Yet even if you don’t forget about an email, you still might find yourself having to type out: “Sorry for the delay.” Hadlington says we also put off emails because it can be a “cognitively demanding task” to sort through them and figure out which to prioritise. “Growing inboxes can also place pressures on us,” he says, “Email alerts interrupt our daily task flow, and research has shown that work that is interrupted takes a lot longer to complete than work that hasn’t been.”

There are probably people reading this who fall on the other side of the inbox – wondering why they can’t get a simple reply from their simple colleagues. Tom Buchanan, a professor of psychology at the University of Westminster, explains that people who are prone to procrastinating or “passing the buck” are those who take longer to respond to emails.

“Both of these are behaviours thought to be associated with pessimism about making a good decision,” he says. This is exacerbated, he explains, when there isn’t a strict deadline in which you need to reply to an email. This type of procrastination is also associated with higher levels of stress. “So at least some of us, if there’s no urgency to respond to an email where we’re not confident of our reply, will procrastinate – and probably feel bad about it.”

Psychologically, then, a whole host of factors are at work that make an “easy” task seem like a difficult one. In a world where people agonise over exclamation marks, it’s not difficult for emails to become a form of emotional labour. Is it too polite? Is it not polite enough? Is Joan from accounts actually being a bitch when she says “Hope you've been well”? 

Short of the twee “Email Debt Forgiveness Day” (30 April, if you're awful enough), there isn't really an easy solution. In a Buzzfeed article published last year, writer Katie Notopoulos tried emailing like a CEO – quickly, brusquely, and with a sprinkling of self-importance. This, she said, made her life actively better. If this is a option for you, it's worth a try. If not – I hope your next email really does find you well. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

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