What most people don't know is that because we had problems last year, I've set my work email to send 'read' receipts. Not as obvious as it sounds, since the person has to agree to send it. That means that what I know about email I send from work falls into 3 categories:
1. Email that has been read and I know it has been read.
2. Email that has been read or at least briefly scanned before deletion, but I don't have a receipt.
3. Email has been deleted: unread.
How do I know #3? Because when I require a 'read' receipt, I automatically get a 'Deleted: unread' receipt.
I rarely get them - the vast majority of what I send is individual, and the group emails I send tend to be reasonably important. Even so, I absolutely expect to get a number of those - from supervisors, students, etc. I don't bat an eyelid and I don't take it personally.
Until this weekend, when I got *2* - from a good friend, when the subject lines were pretty clearly not mass emailings.
The sense of rage and betrayal took me by surprise. I let them know I knew, but I sat on how I felt - which may seem surprising, but if folks look closely, you'll notice that I actually only go off on big things in public: Church, politics, sermons - anything I deem to be in the public domain, unjust or intolerant, or an 'I'm generally overwhelmed' vent.
So - rage and betrayal. To quote myself in a therapy session, 'Let's explore that, shall we?'
Why the anger and betrayal?
People have the absolute right to do what they want with their email. It's their email, right? So big deal. I got an email of mine deleted by a friend. Boo fucking hoo.
Here's why it's a big deal for me: deleting an email without so much as opening it is a dismissal. It is, quite literally, saying, 'This is trash; I'm not even going to take the time to look at it.' I only ever delete things without reading them if I know they're spam.
If a friend's name is attached to them, no matter how crazy they're driving me, even if it says 'chain letter' in the subject line, whatever - unless I know for sure it's a virus email or the friend has specifically asked me to delete without reading - there is not even an iota of doubt that I will open that email
S/he is my friend, and no matter what, I will hear them. That is one of the most basic tenets of friendship.
Opening an email and at least briefly scanning it before deleting, no matter how busy you are, is about valuing the person who sent it. It doesn't matter if you think, 'Oh, G-d, what are they angry/upset about NOW?' (Maybe it's time to ask them what's driving the anger and listen, especially if there's a particular target?) or 'Not another forward, I don't need that now!' - opening it matters.
I suspect it's a particular bugbear for me because I write. I'm far more adept at expressing deep emotions in writing; I find it much harder in speech. It is the very rare person I can go up to and lean my head against their shoulder and not speak when I'm stressed beyond measure; otherwise, it's all in writing: text, email, letter, whatever.
So what I write matters. What any of your friends writes to you matters.
Now that doesn't mean I expect immediate responses - or even responses - to everything. Some things don't lend themselves to that. What I do expect, and have the right to expect, as your friend, is that you will read what I have to say and take the time to make that judgment.
The rules aren't hard and fast - a friend and I are currently in the midst of an intense conversation that has been on ice for about 3 weeks because she's had a PhD defence and needs to submit. We've had desultory IM chats and other, less demanding conversations in between, but neither of us is bothered about the hiatus because that's how we work. We know we'll get back to it when we're ready. Oddly, I'm far easier with a long lull in the middle of a conversation than an initial silence, perhaps because I've already read the other person (pun intended) and it's easier to jog them and go, 'Hey, I don't think we were finished here. Do you mind if we pick it up again?'
And I'm not perfect either, nowhere near. But I DO have a set of principles I try to abide by, and here they are:
1. If a friend sent it, I will always read it and evaluate how to respond.
2. If a question is asked or a request is made, I will respond either with 'Yes,' 'No,' 'Let me think about it,' - usually with considerable elaboration.
3. Jokes, 'I'm here, on my way,' etc. may or may not get a response.
4. The more emotionally intense/wound up the email/text/whatever, the more immediate my response, because the more it is needed. Some things I'd prefer to do in person, and I'll say that, but in most cases, it's just not possible. So I'll write - even if just to say, 'Got this, will get to it asap, KICK MY ASS if I don't, b/c I'm so busy and you might slip off the front page of emails.'
5. Listen. I've had some huge rows via email, really heartfelt, down in the mud, knock down, drag out, 'This is how I feel about what's happened' exchanges. And there have been long lulls in the middle of some of those exchanges. But 9 times out of 10, the friendship has become far closer. And the 10th time? It's told me the truth of who the other person is, what they can/cannot handle, and moved them to the outer circles, where they belong.
As Traci once said, 'You're about intimacy and deep connection,' which means it's going to get intense, in good ways and bad. Not everyone wants that from a friendship, and that's fine. But because it's where I am, then, for both our sakes, those that aren't need to be further out, where we're both comfortable.
Those are my principles. Within that, everything is flexible and based on context, because every relationship is different. The desire for, and the concept of, connection may be universal, but each connection is unique.
So, what do I ask in return when I send an email? I know not all of my friends are writers, and in fact, I know some absolutely can't abide dealing with the big stuff in writing. No biggy. You are where you are, but:
1. At least open it and scan it. Then decide if you want to chuck it.
2. Listen, even if you have to take a deep breath and it isn't easy. Bugs you? TELL ME. I get the feeling that some friends feel that if they leave it long enough, we'll both have forgotten about it and everything will be ok. No. Even if it is for a while, it's going to come back up in another form. Let's deal now.
3. If we're close enough that I'm emailing you when I'm stressed, depressed, tired, angry (about personal stuff), freaked out - please acknowledge the email. I've never understood why people freak out when I get upset, and hope that if they just ignore it, it'll go away, I'll be fine and phew, they don't have to deal with it. You may not want to deal with it in writing. You may not know what to say. That's ok. But connect with me. If you can't even bear to write, 'I don't know what to say,' or 'I'd rather talk about this,' then the next time you see me, acknowledge it. Let me know that how I'm feeling matters to you. If I've let you in that far, let me know that you can hold that space; that I'm safe with you.
4. If I ask you a question or ask you for something, please respond, even if only briefly. 'Yes,' 'No,' 'Let me think about it,' 'I'm not comfortable with that,' 'Give me a few, freakishly busy,' are all absolutely fine. I just need to know.
Within that, I'm flexible.
It's so easy to just delete emails: the person isn't in front of us, most of the time we don't get receipts, and we're all overwhelmed with the number we get - work, corporate, advertising, friends, spam - every day. We feel plugged in all the time - and we are, what with mobiles, laptops, desktops, Crackberries - but connection is about what - and who - is important. And it doesn't mean emails that are pages long. It can be as simple as, 'I hear you.' I've gotten emails that simply say, '*HUGS*' - and that's enough. There will be time enough for words, but it is the reaching out, the connection, the 'Hey, I'm here,' that matters.
Typing in a quick sentence or a word of comfort or 'I'll be on top of that as soon as I can,' doesn't take more time than it takes to delete 5 Groupon emails. But the difference it makes is immense.
Don't just plug in, connect. And save 'Deleted: unread' for those Jehovah's Witness and 'Hi, my name is X from Y, could you send me your entire bank account' emails.
Those you care about deserve a 'read letter' day.