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The High Cost of Pretending

Guess I'm finally realizing that most people just want you to PRETEND to read and digest their email. 'Yes, $CITIZEN! I agree with $THING!'

apophenia: Warning: Email Sabbatical is Imminent .. and other random thoughts

[via trivium]

danah boyd is finishing her dissertation, then going on vacation for a month. While, she's gone, she's not accepting email. At all. Got that?

No apology. No "vacation message" to pretend she'll read it later. And no implied promise that the stuff people send to her will magically be tended to by an invisble army of interns and elves. While she's away, every message she receives is simply discarded with a friendly response as to why. danah writes:

...I believe that email eradicates any benefits gained from taking a vacation by collecting mold and spitting it back out at you the moment you return. As such, I've trained my beloved INBOX to reject all email during vacation. I give it a little help in the form of a .procmail file that sends everything directly to /dev/null. The effect is very simple. You cannot put anything in my queue while I'm away (however lovingly you intend it) and I come home to a clean INBOX. Don't worry... if you forget, you'll get a nice note from my INBOX telling you to shove off, respect danah's deeply needed vacation time, and try again after January 19.

If you roll your eyes at such fancy, uppity, big-city behavior, consider the alternatives most of us suffer in order to pretend we're listening. Even when we know we're not.

At worst, we lie: both to ourselves and to others.

We play this pantomime game where we continue to offer contemporary life's default level of extraordinary personal access to anyone who seeks it -- even at the times when we have no intention of, or ability to, do anything about what people use that access to ask of us. And, that's a small but telling lie.

You ever done the opposite of what danah is doing? Where you come back from a vacation during which you half-checked email from a mobile device, ignored most of it, and didn't properly finish processing the rest? Sure, you have. And, what happened?

Well, if you're like most people, you deleted a lot of the messages without even reading them. Right? Or, what? You spent 2 or 3 days reading and responding to everything? Even while new (and inarguably more salient) stuff piled up? Right. Smart.

So, maybe you prefer to think of it as mismanaging expectations. Because you feel guilty about just ignoring everything you implied you'd do something about, and you still feel the pressure to do something with all of it -- even if it's just responding with a template or writing back to say how busy you are, and, Sorry! but I'm still getting to this. SORRY!

Or. You could have told the truth. Don't send me email. I won't see it. Write me later.

'It's nice to pretend to be important; but it's more important to pretend to be nice.' ~ Dale Carnegie, 1937

danah's decision would be so wrong for so many people that it's mind-boggling to contemplate. But it is her decision, and doing anything but congratulating her on having the courageousness to unambiguously manage such a giant expectation would be cynical and (yep) dishonest. This is some bold shit, and, you know what? That scares the hell out of people.

In my experience, most of us are terrified of being told the truth, even about something as seemingly trivial as email. It's so much easier and more comfortable for all the parties in a relationship to fall back on the pseudo-polite non-communication that lets us pretend to pay attention to each other on a massive scale. And, right now, this is a really important thing that very few people are talking about.

Even if we call this something less than "a lie," we're still stuck with the depressing prospect of a secret and shameful existence in which pretending to pay attention to people is less damaging than simply admitting we don't have the cycles to be a big phony. That pretending is a more important use of your time than doing things. That anyone who pretends to pay attention to each of us is entitled to the same nonsense courtesy.

Stress comes from dissonance. When two things in your mind can't be resolved and you start thinking you're going to be stuck with the incongruity forever, you stress.

But, as much as our minds and our hearts encourage us to believe the fault goes to our will or our lack of industry -- rather than our thinking and cognition -- the true cure for stress is to cut the Gordian Knot. To change your mind about at least one thing you think you're not allowed to change your mind about.

You alter the game when you re-write the rules. And, in this instance, if you find yourself more occupied with maintaining the lie than you are with doing the real work that the lie's meant to support, it's probably time to drop the lie. And, it also wouldn't hurt to get unbelievably real about what you really do, rather than how and when you move bits.

Thing is, it's not kindness that makes you see honesty as a dick move; it's fear. And whenever you let fear drive, you're going to end up in some dark, weird places where email ends up seeming like the least of your problems.

No, we can't all turn off the inputs in our life whenever we want. But we can damned sure do the more significant thing danah did here. We can create meaningful and sustainable expectations about how, when, or whether we'll respond to each of the inputs in our world. We can be candid about the level of attention strangers and friends can expect from us. And, when the time is appropriate, we can find the stomach to tell the world we're not even pretending to listen.

Apparently, you should pretend to like anyone who pretends to like you. This is called 'networking,' and it's why the web smells like feet.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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