This week, more than two strangers sent me emails outlining their apparently deep personal offense at the fact that I had not yet responded to their emails to me asking for things they want.
The emails were much more dramatic versions of the following:
“This is my second email in one week to you. Frankly, I just don’t understand why you haven’t responded. I’m trying to convince myself there is some email problem because I am really shocked by this.”
“I need you to write back, as I explained in my earlier note. Why are you tweeting if you aren’t emailing? Everyone says you are communicative, but this experience has certainly proved otherwise. Why are you doing this given that you know how important this is to me?”
Keep in mind that both emails came from people I do not know, who were asking me to do things to benefit them (not me). Such emails (which come in varying degrees a few times a month) create in me two conflicting desires.
Desire #1: Never respond to the person’s original query because they have annoyed me so thoroughly.
Desire #2: Offer myself as an email consultant to the person to explain that this is not how email works.
This kind of behavior can best be described by a bizarre term I once heard that is both immature and horrid sounding and unbelievably accurate. The term is “butt-hurt“, and my theory is that it comes from the emotions that arise during children’s playground kickball games wherein you kick balls at other people’s backsides and make them cry when you make contact. Essentially, this playground potty-talk denotes the feeling of “Shucks! Ah man! She/he doesn’t like me!” personal offense wherein one hangs their head low and croons loudly.
The main thing about being “butt-hurt” is that the hurt is disproportionate to the offense.
And getting personally offended by a stranger who isn’t responding to your email (or responding timely enough for your liking) about something that you are asking them to do for you (because we all know if it were the other way around you wouldn’t need to hear from them so urgently!), is the essence of butt-hurt.
It is also the essence of dumb.
(And the essence of annoying.)
Instead of assuming the stranger is trying to personally offend you, why not consider a few of these (Plausible! I personally promise!) conclusions:
- The stranger gets 250 emails every day and cannot respond to all her emails.
- Of those 250 emails, 100 of them are people asking for stuff (favors/insight/help/support) that does not directly benefit the stranger herself. Since the stranger cannot live her entire life doling out favors, she cannot be expected to respond favorably to all such requests.
- Your email was just not that important to the stranger.
- Your email was actually really important for the stranger but she lost the email/deleted it/archived it/forgot about it mistakenly because of the typical organizational mishaps that occur when you get 250 emails a day.
- The stranger has been sick, offline, having a baby, or otherwise engaged for the 72 hours in which your response did not come. Forgive her.
Email is an art.
Knowing how to email people you want to do things for you (especially when they have little to no incentive to do what you want them to) is an even higher art form. It’s a balancing act of gentle pitching and kindness and deference and always assuming the best about the other person’s intentions, and the worst about the other person’s free time to respond to emails. If you’re unclear of the rules of email, don’t come to the table wearing your heart on your sleeve ready for personal offense to slight you when responses are not immediate.
Many of you have (thanks!) downloaded my free manifesto — How to Be Social. In it, I lay out the top ten social media marketing mistakes people make on a daily basis. It’s an “irreverent” guide, in the same way this blog post is, because I don’t sugarcoat things.
Now I know I need to write just such a guide about the rules of behavior on email. If only to help make my email inbox a more pleasant place to be.
As I work on this new manifesto defining the basic rules of email behavior, are there any key best practices you would recommend I include? How do you tame the email beast?
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