Let’s stop emailing.
This isn’t a soap box or sanctimonious lecture. It’s an earnest plea, to myself as well, for reconnection. Obviously I don’t mean let’s never, ever use email. Email can certainly be a useful tool, and it is an innovation we can be grateful for. It speeds up the exchange of information and makes certain kind of work easier. It has saved us time. But the fuzzy boundaries that have always existed between the land of “useful” and “exhausting and harmful” are only getting fuzzier.
When I began my career as an educator email was a part of my world. But in the past 5 years email is ever closer to becoming my whole professional world. Early in my work as both a teacher and administrator, it was a sign of professionalism if you were “on top of” your email inbox. Prompt, thorough, warm responsiveness was a hallmark of an efficient, well-rounded, attentive teacher and leader. I prided myself on my attention to detail and my ability to both manage communication on screen, and show up as a competent, kind teacher/leader in person with my students and faculty.
Today, I could easily spend my whole work day managing email. Responding to email, following up on email, initiating new emails. It’s endless. And it is NOT why I chose the work of education or leadership.
I chose this work because I care deeply about people. I care about the dignity of children, and the right they have to a joyful childhood that equips them with necessary skills for navigating the intellectual, emotional, and social world that they are growing up in. I believe in the power and necessity of human connection for individuals and communities to thrive, and I chose this work because I want to give my time and energy to shaping communities and cultures that care for children.
In recent years – this part of my job…the part that fills me and that I love most, the humans, is at risk of being subsumed by the constant pressure and cloud of urgency that can surround email. It arrives at will, demands attention, and provokes feelings. It’s a problem I participate in and I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately.
Why are we up at 10:00pm, 12:00am, 3:00am emailing multi-paragraph descriptions of worries, fears, concerns, or rebuttals to one another?
Why are we spilling out, in typed words, the worries of our hearts and sending them off to someone else who can’t or won’t respond for hours?
Why are we sitting at tables, lying in bed, or relaxing in our living room with our heads down and our fingers flying over the screen composing these missives (“sent from my iPhone”)…at the expense of time with the people right next to us? Or of time with ourselves?
I bet we can all tell a story of a long, unexpected email that knocked us off balance. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can all tell a story about a time we wrote an email like that to someone else. I would suggest that one of the reasons we’re doing it is because the human experience is fraught with feelings. And sometimes those feelings are uncomfortable ones (sadness, hurt, disappointment, anger, frustration, confusion, jealousy, etc.). When I get an uncomfortable feeling I just want it to STOP. I want to make it go away. Quickly. I want to solve it, conquer it, vanquish it, soothe it. And email is a tempting escape hatch. I’ve used it (and I’m sorry if it was with you). I can respond to (or generate) an email that temporarily takes that uncomfortable feeling and, with the clickity-clack of some keystrokes and the press of the “send” button – puts that uncomfortable feeling in someone else’s court (or inbox, as it were).
And therein lies the cycle. Now someone else probably has an uncomfortable feeling. Maybe it’s surprise, confusion, exhaustion, or a deepening sense of feeling misunderstood. And now they want that uncomfortable feeling gone too. So……they see email as the same escape hatch. *Phew!* Now they, with the power of email, can quickly and temporarily soothe their uncomfortable feeling as well.
We can stop. You, or I or anyone, can be the one who interrupts the cycle. When you have an uncomfortable feeling, instead of pulling out the computer, phone, or tablet what if we each asked ourselves:
- What am I feeling right now?
- Why am I feeling this way?
- What other things (my own history, other experiences I had today, etc.) might be influencing how I’m feeling in response to this moment?
- What is it I want to do?
- Does that response embody the core values I believe in? If not, what might I do instead?
To be sure, in-person conversations are slower. They take more time to arrange and schedule. They don’t immediately assuage the mounting urgency that pounds against our chests and presses at the back of our eyes when we’re feeling uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the solace they offer is deeper and ultimately more genuinely soothing. They offer connection and the chance of empathy, of truly being seen and seeing someone else. Interpersonal conversations can be harder, for many reasons, but ultimately the reward they offer is much greater.
It is imperative that we do a better job for children and for each other in navigating our feelings. We are burying them under apps and distractions and texts and emails. And even as we may temporarily dodge or escape uncomfortable feelings, we ultimately also miss out on joyful ones through these behaviors. Children are learning from us. I want more for them then learning that email is the first coping mechanism to lean on when things (feelings) get rocky or unpredictable. I think you want more for them too. I want to know and understand people: children and adults. Email isn’t helping with that. There is another way. Let’s find our way back to each other.