Or as the geekier folks often write it:
I really don’t know what it is that causes it, but for some reason email
seems to bring out the “me too” in many people. You know what I mean: you’ll
have a discussion, either one-on-one correspondence or more commonly an
exchange on a mailing list, and at its close or at some other juncture, you’ll
get a completely content-free email or collection of emails from some of the
Perhaps we feel the need to let people know we’re listening. Perhaps it’s
the email equivalent of an head nod. The problem is, as I said, that it’s
otherwise completely content free. As a result, unlike an actual head nod, it’s
difficult to ignore. Someone must download it, read it, determine its value (if
any), and then dispose of it.
Imagine if a real life head nod forced everyone you were talking to to stop
talking and look at you and decide if your nod meant anything. Even if only for
a second, that would get very annoying very quickly.
It’s quite alright to take the floor, if you have something to say. If not?
Well, that’s part of the point of this little essay.
If you have nothing to say, say nothing.
It seems simple enough. Before you dash off that next email reply –
especially if it’s going out to a mailing list – look at it carefully. Are you
actually adding value to the conversation? Is it something that your recipients
will value? Will they want to see it? Do they need to see it? If not, why are
you cluttering up their inboxes and stealing their valuable time? For that
matter, why are you taking your valuable time to do it?
My personal foible is my need to have the last word. All too often I find
myself replying to an email and thinking “Why am I saying this? What’s the
point?” All too often the point is simply that I’m unconsciously attempting to
establish some kind of position in the conversation by making sure I’m the last
person with something to say. Unfortunately, the value of what I have to say
decreases, since at this point I’m simply finding things to say, rather than
saying something that needs to be said.
Another very common cause of replying a little to often is the need to
correct, clarify or build on a point that someone else has made. All to often
it’s more about showing superiority than it is about clarification.
If it’s important, then fine – but be realistic about what’s important.
Quite often it’s not as important as you first think.
Now, I’m definitely not saying never reply. Obviously it’s quite possible
that people are expecting you to join in the conversation, reply to a
point or question, or an error does need correcting. What I am saying is think
twice. Take a second to make sure that when you do reply, your reply has a
purpose and that you’re actually saying something. If not, perhaps you don’t need to reply at all.
I think you’ll find quite often that’s perfectly acceptable.
So far it’s also easy to consider this as purely altruistic – you’re doing
this to help others keep their inboxes clear, but it’s not about your own, is
On the contrary. I’ve already mentioned the time saved when you don’t reply
to every random message you might be inclined to, but there’s more. For
everyone content-free email you send, chances are there’s someone else on your
mailing list who doesn’t get the point we’re making here, and will respond with
a content-free email in response. And you know where that lands: in
So if you need a selfish argument, it’s that only replying appropriately
will, as a side effect, also reduce the amount of email you need to deal with
And that, too, is a good thing.