Why pay attention to email when you can ignore it?

For all that our generation has grown up with and embraced the Digital Age, we have proven appallingly atrocious at actually paying attention. Case study: email!

The most computer-literate folks are also the most inattentive.

My Ph.D. program has a weekly student seminar, where students in the program can present what they’ve been working on to all the other students. It keeps us in touch with one another, we learn what our colleagues are doing, and it provides an opportunity for the presenters to practice delivering talks in a [reasonably] forgiving environment.

These talks typically take place Friday afternoons. My talk, however, was scheduled for the Friday just before Memorial Day; realizing this a few weeks in advance, the seminar organizers and I quickly changed the schedule so I would give my talk that Thursday instead. We updated the public spreadsheet that everyone in the program has with the new date, and sent out an email to everyone with the updated time. We sent out another reminder email the day before (Wednesday) to ensure everyone was aware.

An hour before the seminar, when I sent out some sort of joke email referencing the upcoming presentation, 3 out of the other 5 students in my year said they couldn’t make it because “wait, it’s today? I thought it was Friday and I’m busy now.”


I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising; this is the same group for whom I had to repeatedly send out the link to the aforementioned spreadsheet, because every Friday morning without fail, someone would ask “do we have student seminar” without bothering to check the link first.

Another instance happened just this morning. One of the other second-years and I have gotten into a very nice rhythm of weightlifting + racquetball twice per week in the mornings. A 3rd overheard me talking about it the other day and was very interested in joining our little pow-wow, so I told him where and when and that I’d send an email the night before.

Last night, I sent this email:

Tomorrow at 7am at the CMU UC. Be there at 7 or be lazy. Racquetball after upper-body lifting.

That was the email in its entirety. At 7:02am (I was waiting in the UC locker room for the other two), I received this email from the 3rd guy:

Benefit of the doubt? Only initially.

Now granted, the setup at CMU is a little different: there are two gyms, but only one of them has freeweights, and that is not the one in the UC. We just like to use the UC locker room as a sort of staging area. So, giving the 3rd guy the benefit of the doubt, I checked the weight room in the UC (it’s right near the locker room, so I figure I wouldn’t miss him).

Nope. Not there. Didn’t respond to any further text messages or emails, so at 7:15 when my usual partner arrived, we went ahead and began our workout.

Around 10:15am when we finished, I checked my phone to see a message from dude #3, informing me that he’d gone to the Pitt gym instead, thinking that’s where we were.

Worthy of the double facepalm.

What is so bloody hard about reading your email? Yes, we receive gobs more of it than we can physically handle, and occasionally things slip through the cracks, but the above situations, while anecdotal in this setting, are quite systematic. I wrote this email back to the pair:

Obvious email is obvious.

I agree there are far too many distractions in this interwebs age we live in–having instant messengers open with three separate emails, plus Facebook and Twitter and “pinterest” (lulz), it’s a wonder to me how any work gets done at all and anything useful is communicated. At times it feels as though 99% of what I read in a day is noise, and sifting through it all to find that 1% signal is tedious (seriously: if you have over 1000 Facebook friends, do you really keep in touch with more than about 10% of them?).

The crux here, which I suppose I haven’t explicitly mentioned, is that it’s frustrating when the rare important emails are ignored while the frequent “lulz”y emails are consistently responded to. That strongly suggests something other than accidental filter failure at work.

And if you don’t like that I ended that sentence with a preposition, I have this to say about that.


About Shannon Quinn

Oh hai!
This entry was posted in Exercise, Internet, Real Life, the dark side and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why pay attention to email when you can ignore it?

  1. eksith says:

    So due to their inability to manage the noise, you had inadvertently exceeded their Shannon limit. 😛

    This is what I call the Important -> Yawn syndrome and a big reason why I’m not on Bookpalm any more. It’s just too much.

    A very important email is seen, but is then put aside to the “I’ll read later” pile. Which is the priority list equivalent of /dev/null (although I’m guilty of this as well).

    Emails don’t really get treated the same way we used to years ago since they’re now the voicemail equivalent so when I send them, I put the annoying-yet-effective “[URGENT]” or “[DEADLINE]” prefix in the subject line with the time/date/place in addition to setting the priority flag. This way, they can at least scan the message and process it in the Twitter-cortex part of the brain.

    Kids these days…

    • magsol says:

      “Kids these days…” GET OFF MY E-LAWN! 😛

      It’s a hard problem, I agree. And I may very well be hypocritical by posting this, considering the only time one gets annoyed with a lack of response is when it happens with other people; I conveniently don’t recall any situations where I may have missed an email.

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