Last weekend none of us had access to our e-mail. Our university was migrating its e-mail program, so we were given several weeks’ notice that we would be cut off from the world from 5 p.m. on Friday to some time on Monday. The response to this pending communication vacuum prompted reactions ranging from panic to euphoria. After an initial bout of anxiety, I moved to a Zen-like state of acceptance as I pondered what it might be like to have a whole weekend without interruptions.

My time spent not reading e-mail was put to very good use: a long hike, dinner with friends, cleaning out my garage and, importantly, thinking about why I hate e-mail. After a couple of days of reflection, it occurred to me I don’t really hate e-mail, I just hate the way certain people use it. After careful consideration, I narrowed down my top five e-mail pet peeves:

1) Writing too much. I recently heard a story about an influential faculty member who sent a senior member of our administration an e-mail message that would have been five pages of single spaced text had it been a hard copy document. The response? “OK; let’s do it.” The writer was outraged and is said to have uttered some version of “I took the time to write a lengthy and nuanced examination of an important issue only to be insulted with a one sentence response.” At least the answer was positive! It could have well said, “TLDR” (Too long, didn’t read). While the writer was, no doubt, impressed with his thesis sentence, prose and compelling analysis, the message contained more information than was needed to provide an answer. Plus, just try reading something like that on your phone. Annoying.

2) Using random subject lines. I have a highly effective filing system for my important e-mails that is made absolutely useless when people use inaccurate subject lines. Often a message begins with an appropriate subject line: “Proposed syllabus revisions” and then days or months later a response to that message is used to raise an entirely different subject. The other day I spent 10 minutes looking for some scheduling information that I finally determined to be embedded in a message titled, “Chapters 10-15.”

3) Expecting immediate responses. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might allege that email is a plot to make sure that nothing important ever occurs. For me, a day spent in response, response, response mode means that I’m not able to attend to anything particularly strategic that requires a little thinking time. I have tried checking e-mail just a few times a day, but then have people calling to ask why I have not responded to their (non-urgent) messages. This makes me crazy.


4) Condemnation by cc. A person with whom I interact from time to time has a nasty habit of sending “Let me set you straight messages,” apparently designed to belittle the recipient and make sure that everyone on the cc list appreciates the writer’s superior intelligence. Alas, this writer is often proven wrong. When this happens, does she write a mass message to the original cc list admitting her error and redeeming the reputation of her victim? Of course not; instead she picks up the phone to make a personal apology, cleverly avoiding any documentation that could be used against her. In her mind she has made things right. In reality she has made things worse.

5) Ranting. Mad at me? Think I need to reconsider my position on a sensitive topic? Believe I have done you wrong in some way? Guess what? There is this really cool communication tool called a “conversation” and it works pretty well. Despite beliefs to the contrary, e-mail is not an all-purpose communication tool.

What gets on your nerves about e-mail? Do you have any tips for managing your messages?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Sean MacEntee.]