Once upon a time, people had a go-to quip about unnecessary work meetings: “This could have been an email.” The meme became so deeply ingrained in office culture — a perfect distillation of white-collar inefficiency and waste — that you can still buy actual prize ribbons printed with the phrase “I Survived Another Meeting That Should Have Been an Email.” Meetings were passé, email was the wave of the future, and we couldn’t understand anyone who refused to adapt to this cutting-edge reality.
Smugly convinced of email’s supremacy, we hardly stopped to consider that it might really suck.
But the years of illusion are over. Now we hate email, which feels like a relic of the ’90s. We ignore it as long as possible, nursing shame and resentment all the while. Some of us, like The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz, have given up replying at all, embracing “Inbox Infinity.” Nonetheless, emails are still exchanged in significant volume — somewhere around 281 billion fly across the web every day. What exactly do these messages sound like, now that the novelty of this communication has worn off? Pissy, for the most part.
Indeed, the mere arrival of an email can be interpreted as hostile engagement these days, with the subsequent replies and follow-ups ratcheting up the firepower. It’s unusual, however, for these correspondences to rely on blunt insult — after all, they only happen because one person wants something from the other, and as such, they play out like terse, poker-faced negotiations. One detestable opening gambit is “I hope this email finds you well,” which always feels like a trap, or slightly presumptuous.
If you ignore an email — particularly one sent by a pesky PR person — they’ll be right there again in your inbox later that week with a “circling back” note. Unforgivable shit.
“Thanks in advance!” appears to mean either “This was supposed to be done already” or “You’re not going to weasel out of this.” Any kind of “regards,” whether fond, warm or kind, registers as a fairly acid sign-off; “cheers” makes it sound like you’re at happy hour while the rest of us are chained to our desks. Both “FYI” and “friendly reminder” are designed to flag stuff that someone’s dumb, spaced-out ass should have known already.
Perhaps no turn of phrase is as unambiguous, though, as the icy “per my last email” — four words that reliably convey one’s rage at having to restate the original communiqué.
A huge problem with this style of euphemistic sniping is the increasing difficulty of transmitting a genuinely innocent (or at least non-confrontational) question or request. We soften our language till we sound not just preemptively apologetic, but timid, weak, self-loathing. We shrink ourselves until we can be safely ignored by the recipient.
But where does it end? One day we’ll simply be emailing the word “sorry” back and forth — no caps, no punctuation, don’t want to seem angry! — until it’s time to clock out. You get the sense we’re ready to leap to the cloud, check in with each other telepathically, anything besides typing, ugh. Then that, too, will prove infuriating (picture an accidental reply-all when your brain is hooked up to the company mainframe), and the cycle will begin again. I’m sure this exact thing happened with letter-writing about 25 years ago.
Oh well. History rolls onward, unfeeling and oblivious. I guess we can be grateful for the decade or so when email served a clear-cut purpose without adding to our anxiety and misanthropy. At this point, we’re so far removed from “Hey! I’m talking to you on a computer! Wow!” that it’s hard to imagine a sense of pleasure at clicking on a subject line. Meanwhile, you almost have to admire the nutjobs with anger issues who say what they mean. They are free from the code of bogus politeness, rogues without masters.
The best part of all? Nobody ever emails them back. And that is how this game is won.
Thanks again, and all best,