Email Is a Good Fence

Wooden fence, countryside landscape

The proverb “good fences make good neighbors”, often attributed to poet Robert Frost, is the perfect metaphor for the beauty of email as the primary, if not sole, asynchronous communication method in the digital age.

The origin of the phrase is not entirely clear. Interesting Literature states an earlier reference in 1640 from E. Rogers, who wrote “A good fence helpeth to keepe peace between neighbours; but let vs take heed that we make not a high stone wall, to keepe vs from meeting.”

That high stone wall might today by postal mail. For some, it might be a little too much friction, although I would argue that postal mail is the most classic and perfect of all written communication among friends (and neighbors). But for many, if we waited for that inevitable letter in the mail, we might never get one.

This, however, is the pedantic excuse of all text messengers. Those wired to their phone each day, pinging and tapping, sending and receiving, draining their dopamine to the point of fatigue, would argue that should they try instead to live by email alone, they would never hear back from their friends, families, and neighbors.

Rubbish. What they admit unknowingly in their Fear of Missing Out is that they know, with some degree of certainty, that some, if not many, of their messaging contacts, would fail to follow them back to the email fold, and they would instead have only a handful of friends, family, and neighbors to correspond with, rather than the hundreds they do on messaging services like iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp.

They seem to miss the point. It is that little bit of extra friction which provides the difference between quality and noise.

My email inbox now contains several emails I received over the past two months from dear friends. Some are long-form and I look forward to my writing my own long-form reply. That is the nature of my relationship with them. Others are shorter. A few might be designated as screeds. A few are merely links to a video or article online. The content of their emails matter. Thanks to the Superpowers of Email, I’m not concerned that their communications to me will fall off the screen in short order, never to be retrieved or followed up with.

The fence of email offers the perfect hedge between peace and a nearly frictionless, noisy, text messaging environment. Without the fence of email, you can be reached at any time and for any reason, without even knowing what the topic might be. The amount of poor communication on text messaging and its variants is so numerous that it’s nearly impossible to manage, but even if one does, it’s quite literally ‘management’ — all day, every day. Text messaging offers no automation or real control.

So-called solutions for text messaging issues sound helpful at first, but always fall short. One is to configure your notifications. However, those get readjusted by our smartphone operating systems, often without our consent. Reducing notifications rarely works because text messaging services don’t give us complete control.

Another common approach is not to reply at all. Tell message senders later that it slipped your mind (and off your screen). Maybe it did. Receiving hundreds of disparate text messages per week, across a variety of topic-less threads, one or two sentences at a time, is probably a path to dementia. Who can do that week-in and week-out and still pretend to be a parent, a spouse, or a close friend? You are deluding yourself.

I’m convinced the central reason people don’t make real changes to their text messaging habits is because they are so busy texting, distracted from any meaningful deep thought, rushing about to chase every microscopic blurb of information, that their brains are degraded from excessive dopamine fatigue. Who has time to thoughtfully set in motion better communication practices when – ping! – you’ve just received another notification?

Writing in 1942, C.S. Lewis supposed that Satan’s chief job was to keep us busy and distracted. Winning the argument against the existence of God, the chief purpose of man, or raising Kingdom children was far easier, Lewis posited, if the devil’s minions focused on keeping us unfocused. Why even have an argument with a contemplative person? They might contemplate that the Bible is true and their life needs changing. Lewis felt that a winning strategy for demons was to not overwork themselves, but to keep us merely free of deeper contemplation. I’d recommend The Screwtape Letters.

Text messaging platforms almost guarantee that ‘perspective’ and ‘reflection’ are the last thing anyone will consider regarding their weekly communication habits.

In the snail mail world, we had a name for that noise: junk mail. It went, unopened usually, in the bin. We might all universally agree that messages, whether email or text, that come from faceless corporations could be considered junk.

What people fail to appreciate is that just because you know the person, or met them once, doesn’t mean it’s much better than junk mail.

Many people are unconsciously loyal to other people. They struggle to clean up their messaging life. Whether they once exchanged Instagram handles at a farmer’s market, or they have a pestering family member who attempts to create monthly drama, or whether they were added to a messaging group that no longer genuinely serves them or their limited time on earth, the end result is the same: unconscious loyalty without discernment empties our lives, not fills it.

The false vibrations we receive from the dopamine drops confuse us. Cheap likes on social media platforms equally confuse us. I know content creators (bloggers, YouTubers) who can’t stop looking at their traffic statistics. It’s all the same time suck. Getting instant messages that are shallow, transactional, or from people not in our closest circles, saps our time and focus on the work we should be doing each day with family, nature, inner spiritual life, and in our businesses and workplaces.

Speaking of work, with the rise of remote work, how many abuse their employer’s trust to send “just a quick message” to someone during work hours? If your employer had access to your screen-time statistics, what would they think about your messaging habits? Asynchronous email wins the day for respecting our employers.

How to Build a Beautiful Email Fence

1. Stop Giving Out Your Phone Number, IG Handle, Discord Server, Telegram handle, etc.

Just stop it. Realize the time you are committing to at that moment. The moment someone says, “Hey we should exchange info”, recognize that you are about to subtract (potentially) hours of your life the next few years for this near-stranger. Hours from your family, hours from your children, hours from your peace, and maybe hours from your sleep. And all for the lowest quality communication of our modern age.

2. Only give out your email address.

If you’re already musing that, well, “I’m probably not going to email them”, isn’t that a sign you’re wasting your time to even bother with this information exchange?

Obviously, do not give out your email address to companies and marketers. That’s even more time suck from your life. I’m referring here to friends or potential new friends.

3. Be mindful of your total ‘friend’ count.

Dunbar’s Number gets debated, but in general, people say you can’t really maintain quality relationships with more than 150 people. I’d argue the number is far less, but to each his own. If you’ve got hundreds of people you’re linked to on social media, LinkedIn, and on messaging platforms, you need to rethink who is important in your life. If I open your contacts and read names to you, can you tell me who each person is? What do you know about them other than when or how you met? Stop feeling guilty about them, and start feeling guilty about the people under your nose who you’re ignoring.

4. Write to friends on email.

If you only have their phone or IG handle or Facebook profile, message them and say something like “Hey, I wanted to send you something a bit more meaningful. Can we exchange emails? Here’s mine: “. You’d be surprised at two things: first, how many are happy to do so, and feel valued that you would ask, and second, how many don’t reply. Consider the latter a fair warning on the quality of your relationships with many in your contacts.

Once you get email addresses for all your important contacts, consider changing your number. Consider changing (or deleting) your Instagram account and your other social media accounts. At the minimum, remove them from your phone so the noise from them can no longer get through, at least not in any ‘timely’ manner that the intruders are used to.

Reduce their access to you. Keep email wide-open and be responsive on there (inline with email standards of 1-2 weeks) as best you can, while pretty much never responding on other platforms.

Be sure to take the initiative. You start. Write at least a five paragraph email to your friends, family, neighbors, and others. (Hint: you can copy/paste generic paragraphs to people who don’t know each other).

Find something interesting to say. If you don’t have anything interesting to say that would fill up five paragraphs, well the old adage comes to mind about women who claim their exes were all jerks: the only common factor is her. The same goes for digital communication: if you get a lot of boring, noisy, drama-filled texts that drain you, maybe it’s you.

Change your approach and start being the interesting one via email. You’ll quickly discover richness in some friends, and the blandness and time-wasting in others will also become clear. If you can’t change your approach, if you haven’t much interesting to say in an email, then why are you on messaging platforms dulling others with your bland and uninteresting words? Quit all the platforms and email and go make your life interesting so that, one day, you’ll not bore a pen pal to death.

5. Use Rules and Filters to ‘manage’ Email.

Unlike messaging, you can put email to work for you, not against you. One idea is to have a few sub-folders in your inbox, like “Family” and “Friends”. Create rules to funnel email from those select people into those folders. Those get answered first.

Got a few gadflies you’ve collected over time? No problem. Create a sub-folder called “Misc” or “Other” (just in case they ever happen to see your email inbox folders) and funnel those folks in there.

Lastly, if you’ve got an important person or two in life that you have to keep in touch with for some reason, but they aren’t exactly writing emails you typicality look forward to, keep a special folder with their name on it. Funnel their email in there. If her name is Brenda, and you really don’t want to see her email everyday, call it “Z_Brenda” so it sorts down below the fold under your many other folders. You do have a lot of folders to organize your incoming email, right? Right?

I often resort to reverse-sorting those inboxes above. That way, I see the oldest emails on top where I can attempt to reply in the order in which they were received.

Always remember to archive replied-to emails out of those specialized inboxes. All that should be in them are emails to which you want to respond.

Defend your Email Fence

You will be tempted to break protocol. Whether it be a pretty girl or a handsome guy, someone who is unusually insistent, or someone promising you that “they just don’t email, but they won’t blow up your text app”, all I can say to you after doing this for many years is… don’t break protocol. Every time I’ve done so, it’s bitten me back.

One secret beauty of email is that you can ‘disappear’ for 2-3 weeks and almost no one is the wiser. Unlike messaging, where everyone is always apologizing for their limited availability when they (finally) choose life over their digital life, email doesn’t require that. Getting back to someone a month later on email almost always requires no apology.

So, keep the fence strong. If a few planks break, replace them. Tend to your fence by managing your filters and rules. This is the equivalent of putting a new coat of paint on your fence every year or so. Keep it in good condition and it’ll serve you well.

You’ll have more meaningful conversations, enjoy your time more freely and interruption-free, feel far less drain from dopamine fatigue, and (gasp!) even eventually be able to leave your phone behind at times and not worry.

Lastly, for real pros, remove all notifications from email apps on your phones. I don’t recommend removing the app altogether, mostly for the purposes of two-factor authentication, or on the rare occasion you may need to read or send an email via phone (I’ve had to do this with a bank or insurance company sometimes). But resist the urge to ‘check’ email on your phone. Email is a desktop activity primarily, when done right.

One thought on “Email Is a Good Fence”

Leave a Reply