Some Things About Emails

I recently turned 28. Kind of a lot of years. Like, if someone got a job when I was born, they could say shit now like, “I’ve been at this company for 28 years.” Or if two siblings got in a horrible fight when I was born and stopped speaking, they’d tell people about it now and they’d be like, “We haven’t spoken in 28 years.” If a rebel in an African country took power when I was born, it would be a 28-year rule by now. Someone who was my age when I was born is currently 56 and someone who was just born was -28 when I was born. When I was -28 it was 1953. I’m a third of the way to 84 and to saying almost entirely irrelevant things (as opposed to now). I’m a quarter of the way to having died a few decades ago and having my elderly kids telling their adult grandkids about their great-grandfather that died before they were born. The 80’s are to this decade we’re about to enter next month (the teens?) what the 50’s were to the 80’s. So, when I was young in the 80’s and someone would talk about the 50’s, that’s how the 80’s will sound to someone born now (and the 50’s will seem as old-fashioned to today’s baby as the 20’s seems to me). Or put it this way—in Back to the Future, the “present” is 1985, the “past” is 1955, and the “future” is 2015. In the movie’s version of the “past,” sodas cost two cents, TV was just invented, and Earth Angel was the current pop hit. If a new version of the movie came out today, people in the same ancient “past” would be watching the Michael J. Fox version of Back to the Future and listening to Madonna.

That’s all. Just a one-paragraph crisis this year.

The only other comment I’ll add is that it’s incredibly hard to figure out what to do with your face while people are singing you Happy Birthday. It’s a pretty unique and terrible 20 seconds, and the worst part for me is trying to figure out what to do with my face. Like, you can’t sit there lifeless, obviously. And very few people can sit there with a smile plastered on their face without sucking. The “face in your hands” move is extremely useful while it lasts but it expires at the age of 7. If you’re a particularly sappy type of girl, you can get away with the 60% smiling, 40% about-to-cry face the whole time. But for most, you kind of have only one option: the “yeah yeah yeah okay haha good funny you really got me this time now that’s enough stop it haha you win this one” face for 20 straight seconds. You know the one. And it’s not a stagnant face. I’m moving almost the entire time—sarcastically bobbing the head back and forth to the song, “yeah yeah yeah” head nods, looking this way and that to avoid making extended eye contact with anyone. I dust that one off every Novemeber.

I would expand, but I wrote everything one could possibly write about birthdays last year.

Instead, I’m gonna talk about emails.

That’s correct. Emails.

I have a lot of things to say about emails. We all email all the time. It’s a large part of almost everyone’s life. Which means it’s a large part of my life. And nothing sneaks by as a large part of Tim Urban’s life without being seized, tied up, thrown into the back of the van, heaved through the processor, and splatted out on this website. Some things can hide for awhile, but eventually, it will all end up here. Emails were hanging out, doing their thing, not suspecting anything, and then just like that BAM—they find themselves splatted onto this page. It can happen to anyone at any time. And so, let’s discuss some things about emails.*

Let me begin by explaining that I’m a perfectionist.

When my car is kind of messy inside, it tends to get messier. If I’m in a messy car and I take a piece of gum out of the wrapper, and there’s trash lying around everywhere, what am I gonna do with the wrapper? Throw it on the ground, obviously. But then one day I’ll be killing time at the gas pump and I’ll notice the trash can right there and I’ll decide to throw out all the trash in the car. Suddenly, I’m in a clean car. And when I have my next piece of gum, there’s no way in hell I’m throwing the wrapper on the ground. That would be turning something perfect into something imperfect. Throwing that wrapper in the trash is satisfying because it’s maintaining perfection, so I do it. When I’m in the messy car, there’s nothing satisfying about sparing the car one more piece of trash. It seems pointless. So I don’t do it.

The result is that my car is almost always really messy or spotless. Rarely is it anywhere in between. I realize that I’m a psycho.

This applies to a lot of things in my life. If it’s 3pm and I’ve been productive all day, it’s easy to continue being productive and avoid procrastination because continuing to be productive is maintaining the perfection of the day. But when it’s 3pm and I’ve wasted my life all day like a fool, then it’s incredibly hard to break out of it and start work at that point—how unsatisfying is a half-productive day? This is just the way I am.

(You can imagine how obsessed I was with the 2007 Patriots and how crushed I was when they lost the Superbowl.)

So naturally, my email inbox has two basic states—a spotless and efficient clean slate with very few emails, or a bloated, sprawling pile of self-loathing. And when the inbox is full and disgusting and a new, icky email comes in, is there any chance I’m answering it? Of course not. I’m gonna glance at it, quickly look away, and then go to another website. The wrapper ends up on the floor.

But when it’s clean? When my inbox is empty and an email comes in—even the ickiest email—I’m like, “Oh, look at this little bitch who just showed up” and I process it and archive it out of my sight like an efficient factory machine.

This topic is fairly important, since the cleanliness and purity of my soul is directly correlated to the state of my inbox.

So what makes an email “icky”? It’s a complex topic. There’s an entire spectrum of ickiness. And what I mean by icky is not the ickiness of the email itself—I mean the ickiness of what the email will require of me. These are the prime factors that determine an email’s ickiness:
  • Whether I have to read it, respond to it, both or neither
  • The number of question marks in the email
  • How soon it requires a response
  • Whether or not my response has to be well-written
  • How often I correspond with the emailer (i.e. how substantial a “catch-up” the correspondence is)
  • Whether I have to figure out either an excuse or the answer to a question that I don’t know before responding
Taking these factors into account, let’s lay it out on an ickiness scale, with 10 being the most icky:

1: Spam; a newsletter I get and treat almost like spam but might read on occasion

2: Email to a group that includes me that I don’t have to respond to or even read if I don’t want to

3: Email just to me from a good friend/family member

4: Work email that requires a short, informal response

5a: Email just to me from a distant friend with 3 question marks or fewer
5b: Long email to a group that I have to read but don’t have to respond to; a forwarded article I have to read

6: Work email that requires a short, well-written response (i.e. from a client)

7: Long email just to me from a distant friend with 4+ question marks

8a: Email from a friend I wish I wasn’t friends with and didn’t have to talk to
8b: Work email that requires a long, well-written response

9: Email from a friend I wish I wasn’t friends with and didn’t have to talk to who asked about hanging out in the email

10: Long, time-sensitive work email with multiple question marks that requires a long, well-written response and I don’t really know the answer to the questions and have to figure it out

Again, this is not about what I like to receive—I like receiving long emails from distant friends or articles someone sends me—it’s about the task at hand in responding.

So when I have a clean inbox, it’s often a sudden string of several icky emails that sets off the downward spiral into email hell.

Some further thoughts:

There are times when I open an extremely icky email, usually a 9 or higher, and the task ahead of me is so upsetting that I’ll start doing “typing procrastination.” Typing procrastination is the lowest possible form of procrastination. It’s when you start typing things like this:


And you type a really long string of that. Or sometimes I’ll type a string of m’s:


And observe how fast they move compared to a string of i’s:


There are several forms of typing procrastination, and if I’m doing any of them, it means I’m in a very dark place.

The good news is, typing procrastination is no longer a huge part of my life. For some reason, I decided that Government was a good college major even though it led me to type EIGHTY PAPERS IN FOUR YEARS. And each one resulted in an all-nighter. There was a lot of typing procrastination going on.**

Number 8a on the above scale is an interesting one. Sometimes the misery is purely one-sided—but I think that often, the person writing to me who I wish I didn’t have to talk to also wished they didn’t have to talk to me. It’s this terrible paradox that happens a lot in life. I have a friend who was recently invited to her boyfriend’s best friend’s fiancé’s bachelorette party (allow a second to process that). She was miserable about having to go, of course, but she was also sure that the bachelorette was equally miserable about having to invite her. And yet, there was no question in either mind that it had to happen.

While number 9 is usually one-sided, there are definitely situations in which I actually end up hanging out with someone and we’re both pretty unhappy about it. It’s like this obligation that both people assume they have to the other person, and neither one considers that the other person doesn’t want to be obligated either.

There are other things in the world of emailing that happen a lot on your end but you never consider it happening the other way around.

People often BCC someone on a work email, or even on a personal email, but I don’t ever consider that an email written to me has one or more people sneakily eavesdropping over BCC. Do you ever consider that?

Secondly, email lists/groups are a large part of my life. There will be five college friends on an email chatting about one thing, four high school friends on an email discussing another thing, 11 other friends emailing about something else, and my sisters and me emailing about a fourth thing.

The one thing these lists have in common? I’m included on them. In fact, that’s the one thing that all email lists that exist have in common—I’m on all of them.

Of course, the fact is, that there are lists going on every day that include good friends of mine—sometimes everyone on the list is a good friend of mine—and I’m not on them. They exist, but I never consider their existence.

I’m as black and white about capitalization as I am about my car’s cleanliness. Either I’m in capitalization mode or I’m not. Right now, I am. In informal emails, I’m not. In formal emails, I am.

Sometimes it’s awkward when I’m in an email correspondence with someone and one of us is capitalizing and the other isn’t. I feel like the capitalizer is the non-capitalizer’s bitch.

Here’s a pretty reliable rule: the more exclamation points in an email I’m writing, the less happy I am to be writing that email (and most likely, the less close I am to that person). This doesn’t include sarcastic exclamation points or exclamation points after the person’s name in the first line.

Finally, there are email disasters. There are disasters that can occur on email that can’t really occur in any other walk of life. You can accidentally send an embarrassing email to a mass list serve, you can “respond to all” by mistake and trash one of the recipients, you can type the first few letters of a friend’s email address in, write an inappropriate email, send it, and then realize that gmail filled in the email address of a client instead of your friend. The list goes on and on.

In college, a friend of mine sent an extremely uncouth sexual poem to his girlfriend (also a friend of mine)—except he accidentally sent it to his girlfriend and our whole group of friends by “replying to all” by accident. I got the email, read it, sat there confused, and then realized what had happened. I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder. The girl was mortified. Of course, I’ve memorized the poem, but it’s not fit to print here.

Another time in college, I jokingly typed up the worst email I could possibly send to my friend’s ex-girlfriend, telling her all about my friend’s new girlfriend and how much he loved her, and taunted him by putting my hand on the send key. We laughed. It was funny. Until my other friend, not understanding the full gravity of the situation, thought it would be funny to walk over and actually send the email. Gasps occurred. Yelling occurred. Hands covering the mouth with the “Oh my god” look on the face occurred. Needless to say, the recipient and I don’t speak too often these days.

If anyone has any email disaster stories, please share. I really enjoy them.

Meanwhile, I have 160 emails in my inbox. What the hell am I supposed to do about that?


*You were enjoying this paragraph for awhile, but towards the end, you were like, “Really? He’s still going with this?”

**Unfortunately, everyone who reads this blog really missed out because I didn’t start the blog until after college. Never was my misery so pronounced than in college when I had a paper to write. And this would have been a really useful outlet for those situations. At some point, I’ll describe the story of writing my entire senior thesis in the final three days before it was due, a stunt that landed me in the hospital.


Anonymous said...

please tell about your senior thesis experience soon!!

w4gw4gewg34w said...

please tell about your senior thesis experience soon!!

(What Anonymous Said)

I'm in college by the way and my blog's been really useful in venting.

Anonymous said...

I found this email LOL funny bec I identified with so much of it...and also bec you're hilarious. I want to know you and be one of your non-icky email friends ;)

Anonymous said...

icky is a funny word

Natasha said...

hahaaaa, you always always can make me laugh with every post, even though I have to reread some paragraphs, I still laugh!

Newman said...

I have a pretty funny college paper experience which features 2 papers in one night, snow, and a head into a brick wall.

As for your birthday rant at the beginning, I turned 28 back in October and went through my first birthday crisis. Also, instead of being where I wanted to be, I was stuck at a marching band competition in a downpour (not my choice).

Anonymous said...

I don't do e-mail ,I do use
this blog as a default site
to test net'connection with
though.And to remind myself
why I never do e-mail now.

Nicholson ...

Anonymous said...

my boyfriend was out of town, and i typed out a particularly horny email to send him. instead, i sent it to this girl we were hiding the relationship from. didn't have to worry about how to break it to her..

totally sucked. :P

Anonymous said...

I attached a photo to an email to my whole family and accidentally attached the wrong one from my desktop and sent them porn. Horrifying.

Anonymous said...

You need a restraining order against Anonymous #2.

I sat at a long desk in my first job with several colleagues, and one of the girls was talking on the phone and I wrote to my buddy across from me "Can she sound any more loserish? Please kill me if I ever talk like that." I sent it directly to her and I tried to lie my way out of it to no avail.

Anonymous said...

please update again soon! im in finals week and need a good distraction!

Anonymous said...

I've never related to anything more than this. Typing Procrastination...Gosh, I M so thankful im not the only one.

DRP said...