Like many people, I use e-mail to communicate about almost everything, from setting a lunch date to negotiating a contract. Via e-mail, I've consoled upset friends, exchanged ideas with co-workers and reacquainted myself with long-lost relatives. But I may have to reconsider.
According to a recent survey by Pew Internet & American Life, about 90% of Americans have sent or received e-mails, and e-mailing remains the No. 1 activity on the Internet. A majority of those report that, because of e-mail, they communicate more often with family and friends than they used to. The survey also revealed that about one-third of e-mailers admitted that they found it easier to say frank or unpleasant things to friends and relatives in an e-mail than in person. More than two-thirds reported they liked e-mails because they could stay in touch with people without having to spend so much time talking to them.
I see that last finding as particularly ironic because in the last few years, I've noticed a frustrating tendency among my correspondents. Friends and colleagues who would never dream of ignoring my phone messages have no problem giving me the silent treatment with e-mails. Though disregarding a phone message has always been considered very rude, letting an e-mail sit in an in-box is apparently acceptable social behavior.
As the silence goes on, my mind fills with distressing possibilities. Was my tone too curt? Did they read something hostile, but unintended, between the lines? Are they mad at me about something that has nothing to do with the e-mail? Am I boring or annoying them? Should I send another e-mail?
Only a little less distressing than the nonresponse is the partial or incomplete response. I write a long e-mail covering a number of topics, but my correspondent ignores some of them. This sends me into another round of self-doubt.
During my less narcissistic moments, I tell myself that my recipients are just busy. Periodically I resolve to go back to using the phone, where I know nominal communication is guaranteed. At the very least, I'll get some kind of reaction to my question, joke or unsolicited piece of advice -- assuming I can hack my way through voice mail and calling "dead zones" to actually reach the person by phone.
Perhaps it's time to create a formal etiquette for e-mailing that, like our rules for eating and gift-giving, chastises people for sloppy and thoughtless behavior. The rules would cover not only acceptable time frames for responding to an e-mail but also acceptable limits on vacation photos, political petitions and those ever-circulating "funny" stories.
Perhaps I'll write an e-mail to Miss Manners and ask her to consider adding such a chapter to her next book. Chances are, though, she won't reply.