Email Rage: The Digital Killer

Email Rage!
Email Rage!

Your Inbox Might Be Hunting You

Ping! Another email. My good friend, Scott Miller, is a busy teacher, family man, and small-town philanthropist with the biggest heart of anyone I have ever met. He will give you the shirt right off his back, as his love language is definitely acts of service.

Perhaps that is why his phone is going off all the time. People know he is a giver, and they are almost powerless to their innate desire to take.

His inbox is full of emails, text messages, instant messages, and his phone alerts him on every single one.

I wonder if he would get so many requests if they had to call him instead. Probably not—It is easier to ping his phone and takes less emotional investment.

Ping! Another email.

His phone reminds him of other people’s needs and wants.

I feel a pang of guilt, knowing that I can’t even remember all of the causes of localized and personal charity he is involved in, much less keep up with him.

On any given week it could be countless things. One couple needs some support because a loved one is in the hospital. An autistic student needs companionship and wants to tell him all about his favorite sports team’s latest statistic.

Just last week, I showed up in the rain to help him with a brute force landscaping job for a woman in need (the need is relative, and Scott is very generous). She gave me a Starbucks gift card after we were done, which I took knowing full-well that Scott probably wouldn’t accept any remuneration.

Ping! Another email.

You don’t need to ask Scott using vocal cords! It is so easy and fast just to email or text message him your plea at the speed of thought.

In my own life, I tend to get overwhelmed by the things I have already said yes to, each of them creating dozens of emails.

Some of my friends avoid email in preference of newer technology like Slack, which groups conversations and organizes organizational messaging, but even they can’t avoid the dreaded email altogether. They usually just end up with five inboxes and accounts to check each day, as opposed to one.

People have an odd way of thinking about this. “A phone call will definitely get the job done best… So let’s use Email, Facebook Instant Messenger, or text message instead.”

Personally, I love email, but it gets me into lots of trouble.

I’m like one of those dogs in Pavlov’s psychology experiments.

Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, refers to a learning procedure in which a biologically potent stimulus, such as food, is paired with a previously neutral stimulus, like a bell. It also refers to the learning process that results from this pairing, through which the neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response, like salivation, that is usually similar to the one obtained by the potent stimulus.

Ring bell, dog salivates.

In my case, the potent stimulus is testosterone-enhanced adrenaline rage. The neutral stimulus is email. The elicited response is a grown man throwing a tantrum.

Ding inbox, man rages.

I’m not alone. According to Lifewire.com, over half of the world population uses email. The total number of worldwide email users is expected to grow to over 4.3 billion by the end of 2023 and the total number of business and consumer emails sent and received per day will exceed 293 billion in 2019, and is forecast to grow to over 347 billion by year-end 2023.

Chip Conley, the famous hospitality entrepreneur, said, “Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our work and personal lives are made up of daily rituals, including when we eat our meals, how we shower or groom, or how we approach our daily descent into the digital world of email communication.”

Ryan Holmes, a Canadian computer programmer and founder of Hootsuite, says, “Email is familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to use. But it might just be the biggest killer of time and productivity in the office today.”

And Saturday night live comedian, Tracy Morgan says, “People live too much of their lives on email or the Internet or text messages these days. We’re losing all of our communication skills.”

In a Psychology Today article by Emma M. Seppälä, Ph.D., titled What Email Does to Your Brain: Email has more of an impact on us than we even know, referencing research by Professor Tom Jackson of Loughborough University on Email Communication Analysis, Seppälä states that just looking through your inbox can significantly increase your stress levels.

If stress is what you feel by having too much to do with too little time or resources to accomplish it, then your email inbox can now be equated to meeting a hungry predator in an open field. Email overload is just another reminder of our burgeoning to-do lists. In the study mentioned above, email overload had a lot to do with the stress response as measured psychologically and physiologically through heart rate, blood pressure and a measure of cortisol (the “stress hormone”).

Email affects your stress and your well-being. Within minutes, anywhere from thirty to three-hundred separate emotional stimuli are inundating you. Important tasks from the boss could set you into a panic, or worse, a passive-aggressive email from your mom stinging you with guilt.

If you spend even one hour on email, you could be attacked with thousands of emotional stressors. Of course, we get minor relief from the occasional happy photos of kids and kittens, but research on the negativity bias shows that our brain clings feverishly to the negative news.

Our emotional intelligence is severely inhibited. When this stress response fires off, the amygdala takes over to respond with fear and anxiety. This all but shuts down the prefrontal cortex, rendering our ability to make rational choices and use logical reasoning useless.

You become stressed, and you respond stupidly and inappropriately. Once you are depleted of your emotional reserve, research shows that you lose your self-control, leading to pressing “send” and regretting it immediately afterward. You inevitably take more risks and impulses guide your actions. More emails and more messages lead to emotional overload.

Ping! Another email.

It seems like every time I have a severe conflict with another human being, email is somehow involved.

An email has a pitchfork and horns, in the form of exclamation and quotation marks. If email were a dog, it would be the one with rabies.

Today I had a good client, in fact, I almost consider him a friend, who sent me an email about an upcoming local annual fundraising event that I will be speaking at. I opened my acquaintance-client-friend’s email with ‘bated breath, knowing it had to do with a future opportunity for me that was not only fun but profitable.

I could not wait to hear my friend give me nothing but gushing approval and validation, sanctioning anything I wanted to do, and giving me permission to do it anyway I wanted.

I am sure he intended his email to be pleasant and optimistic, as well as offer suggestions for improvement on my previous year’s work.

Instead, I read between the first few lines and quickly (and probably incorrectly) inferred the all too familiar phrases hidden therein:

“Last time you . . . [did something terribly wrong, and you are very stupid]”

“Next time, you . . . [aught to do things the right way and be smart.]”

Of course, I took it as a full on assault to my honor. I found myself jumping up with resentful rage and offense (at least in my imagination—I am not conscious of whether or not my butt actually left the seat). Last year’s event was a great success, and I was showered with rave reviews! Or so I think that is how I am choosing to remember it.

“Well, friend, let me tell you what’s stupid…”

Wouldn’t you love to ream this totally innocent email sender a good one here? What would you say in retaliation? Am I the only one who misinterprets and freaks out quickly, taking offense to just about everything? It can’t just be me who has a problem with overreacting!

As the journalist and television host Faith Salie said, “I once accidentally ‘replied all’ and sent an email complaining about my then-boyfriend to a bunch of strangers. It was meant for my friend, who was a bride, but I ended up addressing her entire wedding party. Her marriage lasted; my relationship didn’t.”

In an article titled: Don’t Type at Me Like That! Email and Emotions, in Psychology Today, David F. Swink argues why emails have feelings too.

People love being isolated from immediate emotional reactions. However, it eliminates the most crucial part of a conversation; non-verbal information like facial expressions, body posture, gestures, tone, and inflection that we rely on to interpret and predict behavior.

In the world of digital communication, we usually lack these non-verbal cues. Our overactive imaginations fill in the blanks about what the sender intended, and it’s typically negative, which leads to colossal misunderstandings and poor decisions.

Swink had two significant insights: Just because you write in a certain way doesn’t mean it’s received the same way, and when we read an email, we attempt to read intention and tone into the words. If the message is ambiguous, many people will automatically read the most destructive emotions and intentions into it.

Email tone interpretations can take on a variety of patterns. Perhaps you have seen something like, “If you don’t get that to me by 3:00 pm today, we’re going to miss our deadline.” You then interpret that to read, “Stupid, we’re going to miss the deadline, and it’s your fault, you idiot.”

Rarely will someone take the time to rewrite the email to read, “Today’s 3:00 pm deadline is important. It’s critical that I get your response today, so we can stay on schedule. Thank you for your help!”

Or how about this: “That’s not what I agreed to in the meeting.” You and I will likely interpret this into, “I know you weren’t paying any attention, you idiot, and you’re trying to pull something over on me, or something worse, so let me set you straight and put you in your place.”

Perhaps this could have been stated better; “In taking a look at my notes, I’ve come to a different point of view. Would you have a few minutes for us to talk on the phone and figure this out? Let me know if today or tomorrow works and give me a couple of times to clear this up, thanks!”

How about this terrible email response?

“yup.”

Tone Interpretation: I’m too busy for idiocy. I don’t have time for you, in fact, I don’t even really like you, and by the way, you’re not worthy of a capital Y.

What could have been written: “Yes.”

Swink wrote a separate article entitled: Managing Conflicts With Email: Why It’s So Tempting. In it, he asks, “Dealing with conflict: Can’t I just send an email ;)?”

He adds to his previous hypothesis that research indicates that we infer meaning in email even more than we thought, through our use of “mirror neurons.” A Society for Neuroscience paper, adapted from Marco Lacoboni, describes mirror neurons as “a special class of brain cells that fire not only when an individual performs an action, but also when the individual observes someone else make the same movement.”

Our mirror neurons go unused, and communication cues are not present when we are emailing and texting. We don’t know how the other person is feeling. When we read an email, instant message, or text message, we automatically try to figure out the “tone” or the emotional undercurrent.

“We fill in the gaps with what we think the person is feeling or what their intention is. Most people fill in the gaps with the worst-case scenario, especially if they don’t know much about the person.”

Ping! Another email.

I didn’t actually write any rebuttal to my friend. Luckily, after hundreds of behavioral modifications, meditations, and repetitions using forced-pleasantry methods of responding (while donning a labored grimace), I am slowly making myself respond using reason—some of the time.

I desperately try not to engage in email warfare anymore. Or at least it has become infrequent. Plus, I am a little numb to scathing emails now, and this one certainly didn’t even qualify as chastising. My friend’s intent was good. That is the operative word; intent.

Yet we don’t perceive it that way at first, do we?

Mark Cuban, a business mogul, has a strong stance; “Whatever you can say in a meeting, you can put in an email. If I have questions, I’ll tell you via email.”

It is funny how reactionary all of us humans are when it comes to digital communication.

Martha Stewart, at the height of her business and media success, said, “My daughter emails me. When your daughter starts to email you instead of talking to you… It’s horrible. You cannot forget human communication.”

In an article titled, Work Emails May Be Taking a Toll on Your Mental Health — And Your Relationship, Jamie Ducharme at Time Magazine points to a study that suggests that responding to a late-night email might win you points with your boss, but it won’t do you any favors at home.

According to research published recently in Academy of Management Best Paper Proceedings, the partners and spouses of people who were expected to be online around the clock also reported decreased well-being, health, and relationship satisfaction, pointing to a “spillover effect” resulting from the behavior, the study says.

Your phone notifications addiction is not only hurting you, but it’s also hurting your loved ones.

Actor, Producer, and Designer, Sarah Jessica Parker, said with comic flare: “I don’t believe in email. I’m an old-fashioned girl. I prefer calling and hanging up.”

Ping! Another email.

Pavlov called the dogs’ anticipatory salivation “psychic secretion.” Putting these informal observations to an experimental test, Pavlov presented a stimulus, in this example, a sound, and then gave the dog food; after a few repetitions, the dogs started to salivate in response to the stimulus.

Talk about jumping to conclusions! Most of us jump right off the digital divide into the land of offense and cynicism. It’s as if the ease of technology made it easy to assume the worst of people’s intentions.

Stand-up comic Nikki Glaser reminds us of the strange turn our culture has taken. “Make eye contact with cute strangers. Give guys your email. Email is safer than a number, or at least it feels that way.”

Across the water at the UK Telegraph, Lucy Clarke-Billings wrote, Psychologists warn constant email notifications are a toxic source of stress.

“The secret to happiness is to ignore an endless stream of emails by turning off your app, according to psychologists who warn constant updates are a “toxic source of stress.” Due to technology enabling people to be at their email’s constant beck and call, a culture has developed where people must feel they are constantly available for work, according to research.”

Clark-Billings posits that a sort of organizational etiquette has seeped into the corporate culture and is killing emotional well-being.

The worst culprit is push notifications, alerting you of new (mostly unimportant) messages regardless of what else you are doing. These pushes push you into tension and worry. The worst habit the study found was leaving email on all day and checking emails early in the morning and late at night—which just about everyone is doing. This creates what they termed email pressure, and was associated with work harming home life, and home life hurting performance at work.

Emily Hackeling of Front software says, “The average worker spends 28 percent of their work week on email, more than 11 hours a week! With the average person sending and receiving 124 work emails every day, or 620 emails every week, we’re spending an average of 1.1 minutes on each email. In the time you spent on work email this year, someone climbed Mount Everest twice. For the average person, email takes up about half the workday. In that time, you could hike the Inca Trail 27 times. You could take 30 road trips across the US. You could read the Harry Potter series cover-to-cover 18 times. You could even take 21 laps around the world in a Boeing 787.”

Ping! Another email.

I have sent and received hundreds, perhaps thousands of completely asinine emails over the last twenty years. I have heard the worst insinuations and conjured the most terrible imagery upon reading someone’s careless email prose. I have had a lot of practice at responding stupidly as well.

Will Self, the English author, journalist and political commentator says, “I like texting as much as the next kidult – and embrace it as yet more evidence, along with email, that we live now in the post-aural age, when an unsolicited phone call is, thankfully, becoming more and more understood to be an unspeakable social solecism, tantamount to an impertinent invasion of privacy.”

Ping! Another email.

What should be a completely harmless and neutral process, the sending and receiving of email has been paired with a very potent stimulus, the utter outrage at other human beings.

The writer John Dobbin says, “In the time-honored tradition of email, just ignore the question.”

Ping! Another email.

This time, I choose to thank my friend for his honesty and constructive criticism, and I pledge to do better this year at the event while making everything happy and glorious just the way he proposes.

Sure, my jaw might have been clenched just a wee bit as I typed the response, but I don’t think that agitated brain wave was transferred over the Internet when I hit the send button.

There must be something wrong with me.

The management consultant and organizational behavior expert Margaret, J. Wheatley says, “For example, I was discussing the use of email and how impersonal it can be, how people will now email someone across the room rather than go and talk to them. But I don’t think this is laziness, I think it is a conscious decision people are making to save time.”

Ping! Another email.

I can remember losing customers and clients, burning bridges with otherwise good relationships, and even losing jobs and entire businesses over that little mangy mutt, the inbred little barking bastard pee-on-your-leg pup called email.

As Daniel Levitin, the cognitive psychologist, neuroscientist, and record producer says, “If you’re making a bunch of little decisions – like, do I read this email now or later? Do I file it? Do I forward it? Do I have to get more information? Do I put it in the spam folder? – That’s a handful of decisions right there, and you haven’t done anything meaningful. It puts us into a brain state of decision fatigue.”

In an article titled, How Email Is Ruining Your Health, by Jessica Stillman a contributor at Inc, Stillman says, “It’s not just you, and it’s not just in your head. British scientists have measured the impact of email on stress levels, and it’s not good.”

It turns out that not all emails are bad. Emails that contain timely information or those that express gratitude for completed work are not stressful. The real culprits that cause spikes in stress levels are those that interrupt tasks or seem irrelevant to the recipient.

The conclusion Professor Tom Jackson who worked on the study, came to is that the problem isn’t inherent in the medium. In other words, email isn’t really the issue. The problem is how we use email.

“Over the years email has been the focus of many research studies and is sometimes portrayed as a bad communication medium,” Jackson says, “but email is no worse than any other media. Multitasking email alongside other communication media, such as phone and face-to-face meetings, increases the risk of becoming stressed.”

Perhaps the real enemy is multitasking?

This bad news for multitasking reinforce earlier studies that show constant interruptions not only make you physically stressed, they also make you stupider.

Ping! Another email.

What’s ridiculous is that email is supposed to be informal, unlike old-fashioned letter writing, which still includes “Dear” and “Sincerely.” Email just says, Hi, or Hey, or worse, only your first name.

We follow up this friendly and informal salutation with long walls of text where we analyze complex problems, describe overly detailed strategic plans, and wax on philosophic with a stream of consciousness.

Noam Chomsky, the father of modern linguistics, says, “The major advances in the speed of communication and ability to interact took place more than a century ago. The shift from sailing ships to telegraph was far more radical than that from telephone to email!”

Tom Hodgkinson, a British writer, and journalist said, “Alongside my ‘no email’ policy, I resolve to make better use of the wonderful Royal Mail, and send letters and postcards to people. There is a huge pleasure in writing a letter, putting it in an envelope and sticking the stamp on it. And huge pleasure in receiving real letters, too.”

Ping! Another email.

Many of us act like we are attorneys in a trial with all the evidence we try to squeeze into one email defending out position.

Cartoonist David Horsey says, “I am no technophobe. I like being able to calibrate communication, depending on the situation – texting for the simple and immediate; email for business or when I want to put some lag time into the exchange; Twitter to promote something; Facebook to draw a crowd.”

Of course, all we would have to do is make a phone call, and not only would the communication be significantly improved, but it would also inevitably save us time and avoid all the passive-aggressive digital assaults.

T. Boone Pickens, the capitalist, said, “To me, emails are a little bit frustrating. I think that the telephone is much preferred because you get the sound of the voice and the interest and everything else you can’t see in an email.”

Simon Sinek, author, and organizational consultant says, “A five-minute call replaces the time it takes to read and reply to the original email and read and reply to their reply… or replies. And I no longer spend twenty-plus minutes crafting the perfect email – no need to.”

Ping! Another email.

In my mind, the only thing worse than email is an instant message. And the text messages can take it to a new level of ridiculous. There is nothing like a book sent via text message.

The entrepreneur, author, and journalist, John Battelle, says, “Prior to email, our private correspondence was secured by a government institution called the postal service. Today, we trust AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, or Gmail with our private utterances.”

Mark Wahlberg, actor, and producer, says, “I like to talk to people. I’ve got one assistant, one Blackberry. That’s my overhead. I don’t text that much or email. I like to sit down face-to-face and have a conversation with you. I’m old-fashioned.”

Ping! Another email.

Another way we are like Pavlov’s dogs is in our feverish need to respond to any and all notifications the millisecond they come in; email, instant messages, texts, alerts. The power of the word ‘Alert’ has dissipated due to this habit. They are reminiscent of the boy who cried wolf.

“Alert! There is a mundane thing happening!”

“Alert, there is something of vague curiosity happening!”

“Alert!”

Pretty soon, it means nothing, and we stop listening altogether.

Guillermo Diaz, an actor, says, “I hit Instagram and Twitter as soon as I wake up. And then I check my texts and emails. It’s funny that I check social media before I check my email.”

Magazine editor Jacqueline Leo, says, “One look at an email can rob you of 15 minutes of focus. One call on your cell phone, one tweet, one instant message can destroy your schedule, forcing you to move meetings, or blow off really important things, like love, and friendship.”

Tim Ferriss, author, and investor says, “I like work/life separation, not work/life balance. What I mean by that is, if I’m on, I want to be on and maximally productive. If I’m off, I don’t want to think about work. When people strive for work/life balance, they end up blending them. That’s how you end up checking email all day Saturday.”

Margaret Heffernan, an entrepreneur, says, “Everyone I know feels harassed by email which has invaded their waking and sleeping hours.”

The computer scientist and mathematician Donald Knuth, says, “Email is a wonderful thing for those people whose role in life is to be on top of things, but not for me: my role is to be on the bottom of things.”

English scientist Matthew Walker says, “Midnight is the time when we think, ‘Well, we should probably send our last email; let me just check Facebook one more time.’ “

Ping! Another email.

The notion of talking to my friend gently raised its hand in the corner of my mind. I deleted my initial responses both figuratively and literally and simply replied, “I can talk on the phone today or tomorrow, what works for you?”

Ring!

It’s a real phone call!

…I hesitate.

About the author

Featured in CNN Money Edition, Jesse Stoddard’s primary aim is to make his mark in the world by exploring new ideas, enhancing collaboration and cooperation with teams, and working in his unique ability, which is transferring infectious enthusiasm, taking action, and loving people in order to gather and connect with others to pursue a bigger, brighter future.

Jesse’s mission is to make good bolder with his writing and art, to serve God, and in such a way that he illuminates truth, shines a humorous light on our human imperfections, and reminds us all to be humble while pointing us to what’s right.