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What does your inbox say about you?

Salt Lake Tribune - Your e-mail inbox is a metaphor for your life

Jeffrey Zaslow rang me up a while back for a quote that made it into his WSJ article (mirrored many places, including here) on what your email style says about you, your habits, and your "mental health." It's a fun piece, and I was happy to contribute, but I'm not altogether on-board with the thesis.

There's probably some truth to the idea that people's email styles reflect aspects of their personalities to some extent (filers might be more organized; procrastinators tend to let stuff pile up), but in my experience, things like email or even whole online personas aren't a reliable indicator of what people are really like in person or how they behave in (for lack of a better phrase) "the real world."

Some of the most articulate people I know sound like complete imbeciles in email. I've also known garden-variety dullards who, given adequate time and spell check functionality, can come off like Thomas Mann. And, frankly, some of the busiest and most seemingly productive people I know actually ignore all electronic communication until someone calls them on the phone. Does it track? Meh. Not in my experience.

Slightly related, just the other day, I had the pleasure of meeting John Gruber (a longtime hero of mine) and was delighted to realize that he is neither The Comic Book Guy nor a Wallace Shawn character, as I'd always unconsciously imagined. He's hilarious and relaxed and -- at the risk of blowing his tough-guy, dark-grey cover -- completely charming. I mean he's a guy, not a web site, you know? Similarly, you aren't necessarily your inbox nor the way you use it. Thank God.

Not too much of a life-changing point to make here. I like whacky pop psychology conjecture as much as the next guy, but I've learned not to draw too many conclusions about people based on a data point as fickle and weird as electronic communication. I'm just not sure email habits can reliably tell you more about a whole person than their bowling average, their choice of hair products, or the results of any given online personality test.

More importantly, I think many of us couldn't have ever predicted how email would demand so much attention in our lives. So most of us are still having a hell of a time figuring our how to give it exactly as much attention as it deserves. As that process evolves, we try on different habits and sometimes eat the booger. Fortunately, we can always change and adapt and even try to develop a style that does mirror our time and values in a way that suits our personalities. Or maybe not. Frankly, I don't know.

What do you think? What can you tell about someone by how they handle email?

MadScott's picture

There are inboxes and then...

There are inboxes and then there are inboxes...

I'm the ultimate Email "hoarder" -- I've kept every non-spam email I've gotten since 1995. Really. This is necessary when working in an ill-defined academic environment, where an Email may be necessary for reference later (or for the nonstop infighting that goes on -- this has saved my career on more than one occasion).

Does this mean that I read or use everything in my "in" box? Of course not -- I have a separate "action" box that I transfer the really important stuff to (perhaps one or two items a day, finally). This is sorted by date -- if it's there for more than a week, then it's expedited or renegotiated ("Can I have an extension on this?"). This allows me to have a clear view of what's immediately important versus the endless dribble of informational Emails that come in.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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