This post took a week to write. Seriously.
August 9, 2010 5:44 AM   Subscribe

How to be less flaky when it comes to communicating with friends?

I'm really flaky about responding to friends and acquaintences. When I get an email, I go into hem and haw mode, writing and rewriting a response, fretting over every detail and overediting and reediting, beanplating it to death, until I give up and tell myself that I will do it later. Later comes and the same thing happens. This can go on for weeks, and in the meantime, I look like an unresponsive jerk. I have this big list of people that I need to email or call. Some are first contact mails like, "hey you're cool, let's make pancakes" type things and others are thank yous and followups to kind things said or done. As someone who's been fairly isolated for the last couple of years, this behavior is not conducive to maintaining the fairly fresh friendships that I've developed in the last year.

Help? Advice?
posted by Cat Pie Hurts to Human Relations (16 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
I do this. The only way I write a response is if I write it immediately OR I work myself into a frenzy and write like 10 mails all in a row while hopped up on coffee. Most of the time I don't see this as a problem (let's just say I'm not that social). Since you do think this is a problem, perhaps setting aside a specific time, say half an hour at the end of the week, to answer all of these social mails might help to motivate you. Sort of like paying your bills.
posted by beerbajay at 5:51 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

I can't believe I'm suggesting this, because it has sort of taken over my group of friends in the past 5 years like a rampant social kudzu, so I suggest it very lightly, but: You might look into taking some improv classes. Improv is very good at making you more comfortable with impulsive action and quick decision-making. I never had a hard time replying to email the way you do, but in other areas I felt very indecisive and stuck and sort of... tentative... a few years ago. I got into improv for unrelated reasons, for awhile, and it actually really helped with that. It forces you to make quick decisions and then to follow through on them, but all in an environment that doesn't really matter because it's made up. And doing this in a made up environment gets you used to it and soon you will be doing it in real life. Then you will be writing emails like they don't really matter, because they don't.
posted by millipede at 6:05 AM on August 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Try doing it on the phone or on MSN or Facebook instead. Pick somewhere that you feel comfortable just saying "hey what's up?" instead of feeling like you have to write a whole essay on Life, the Universe and Everything.
posted by emilyw at 6:07 AM on August 9, 2010

Remember that personal email is a casual format. I send out perfectly well written, carefully crafted emails inviting people for pancakes and I get back a huge variety of responses from:

dude pancaeks r da bomb. see u saturday @billy's diner.




Dear DarlingBri, thanks so much for inviting us! We'd love to join you for pancakes at Billy's. See you Saturday,

John and Christine


DarlingBri!!!!! How are you???? Long time NO chat!! I looooooooove pancakes

These are all 100% fine for personal email. No really. I don't think less of Text Boy or Terse dude than I do of Formal Correspondence Girl or Exclamation Chic. They are all my friends or people of whom I have an existing impression, so I just look at their different email styles as a personal quirk, like a proclivity for mad hats or their different styles of clothing.

If it will help you to power through your email, draft an apology paragraph that you can use to start all the old ones off, like "Hey DarlingBri, I'm so sorry it's taken ages for me to get back to you; things have been really hectic and backed up here but I'm delighted to hear from you. Re your email, ______ "

Remember that it is NOT A TEST. People don't need a beautifully crafted novel; they need a REPLY. All you're sending back is information, so anything right down to the one word reply is golden. Make your new standard "Will this get the job done?" and go with that.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:08 AM on August 9, 2010 [10 favorites]

I do this a lot too. In addition to keeping DarlingBri's advice in mind, I also try to force myself to click that little "Send" button. Postponing it seems to make the procrastination worse. After rereading and editing my response a few times and realizing that the amount of time I've spent on it is beginning to get a little ridiculous, I start telling myself to just send the dang thing. "Okay. No one really cares that much about perfect, exactly-right wording. As long as it makes sense, 's all good. Just reply already. Yes. I am going to do this. RIGHT NOW." And then I immediately send the email and can't agonize anymore and everything is aces.

(Note: I tend to do the same thing with replies in online discussions. Ahem.)
posted by junques at 6:34 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

What is the jist of the email? Saying 'yeah, I'll go'?

Say that, in one or two sentences, and send. Then hem and haw on a follow-up discussing other matters.

The jist of 95% of emails is 'yes', 'no', 'maybe', or 'I got your email.' The vast majority of people value promptness more than email prose, so send the jist and then impress them with your articulation in person.
posted by tmcw at 6:46 AM on August 9, 2010

Don't know if this is practical or useful for you, but you have my e-mail, my phone number, and the address where I will be until this weekend and should feel free to use me for e-mail practice.

Also remember that if people (like me!) are contacting you, it's because they (I) think you're someone worth knowing and investing time in. They wouldn't be e-mailing or calling otherwise, so there's really not much to lose and maybe a lot more to gain if you can bring yourself to press that little "send" button.

Maybe try setting a specific goal for yourself. Pick one or two of those e-mails you've been meaning to respond to and actually respond. Then give yourself two days and if they reply, reply to them again. If they don't, pick one or two other e-mails and respond to them and repeat. I think just doing it may be of more help than anything else.
posted by zizzle at 7:06 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Something that might help is to think about the way you react when somebody sends you an email. Do you sit there diagramming all of the sentences and correcting the grammar? Do you sift through it looking for shades of meaning and then get angry when you find them? Do you use the email to revise your sense of the worth/intelligence of the person sending it? I'm guessing you don't; you probably just absorb the content of the email and then move on (except, as your question indicates,where a response is required). In general, you can assume that people you email won't do these things either. Instead, they'll read your emails much the way you read theirs: generously.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:17 AM on August 9, 2010

Maybe email is not your medium? I know for a lot of people it's not. Like for me, the same is true for the phone. If you had said "hey call me when you want to hang out" and made it clear that this was THE way to reach you, we'd hang out much less than we do. So, think about whether there is maybe better way to get ahold of you for "hey let's hang out" interactions and then you can worry about the longer emails in a different way. I also have a ton of longer emails that I should be writing, but this is a different problem from just letting people know I'll be at the event. So, like Darling Bri, I think of this in terms of identifying and solving the problem. If the problem is "I need to let this person know I'll be at the thing" and not "I need to impress this person with my lack of typos" then solving the problem involves more sending and less proofreading. If you're trying to solve a different problem, that's okay but it's worth identifying and inspecting your priorities. Not to medicalize this, but this is a sort of obsessive type of behavior, as I'm sure you realize. If you're an otherwise non-OCD person, no big deal but if you have other obsessive behaviors, this is definitely one that you could consider affecting your life and worth paying attention to a little bit.

People don't need a beautifully crafted novel; they need a REPLY.

It might be helpful to know that a lot of people will probably be reading your emails from their phone or while driving or on their computer at work or whatever else. So, even if you do work hard to craft a reply, it will often be lost on them anyhow. You can also always fall back on the "more later" tagline and then bail on the more later which is better than never communicating at all.

Lastly I see this as something you can chip away at. Tell yourself you're going to gt a cup of coffee and by the time you're done you will have sent the two emails you've been sitting on the longest. Or whatever is motivating. Hold up the thing you like ["no second cup!"] until you've done the thing you like less.

Also I've developed a postcard mentality about a lot of communication. Like, no one cares what you say on a postcard, they just like the picture and they like hearing from you and/or getting mail. People who are appreciated for sending postcards and/or developing software and/or doing a lot of socially beneficial things are people who SHIP. So get some actual or metaphorical stamps and do some real communicating and get outside your own head. It feels good when you do it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:28 AM on August 9, 2010

Like DarlingBri says, I've found that, with the exception of being too wordy, nobody is really going to judge you by how you respond to emails. If you're worried about being witty, stop trying. It's difficult to be effective via email and you can charm them in person.
posted by ista at 8:07 AM on August 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Back in the early 80's, when people still wrote letters, I used to agonize this way over a letter. Emails? Naah.

You have no idea how easy you have it.
posted by serena15221 at 9:16 AM on August 9, 2010

I have this same problem. But you know what? As much as I have blown off responding to friends for long periods of time, they are good friends that always write back whenever they get a chance also. These friends are comfortable with my procrastinating behavior. If you find that you can't change this habit of yours, maybe you can console yourself with the knowledge that your friends accept this part of your personality in return for your good friendship.

I'll be watching this post for some sage advice myself. Good luck!
posted by Cheminatrix at 9:44 AM on August 9, 2010

Response by poster: Huh. I had no idea that verbosity in email was considered a not-good thing. This may actually explain a lot of things for me when it comes to some past inexplicable (to me) interactions I've had.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 10:03 AM on August 9, 2010

I had no idea that verbosity in email was considered a not-good thing.

I don't think it's not-good exactly (I've had a ton of long email exchanges that I've adored) but that it can seem like something that it isn't and can set expectations in maybe a different way than you may have intended.

So for me, anything I can jot off a quick reply to pretty much gets out of my inbox [which is my to do list] immediately. Anything requiring a longer reply waits til I have some free time. And sometimes I have time for replying that same day, or sometimes it can take a few days. Rarely, with really long emails, I may have time to reply a month later. This feels ridiculous, but there it is. And then there's my boyfriend and I, we keep up a pretty long stream of chatter over email all day, but we usually have one longer email that we trade back and forth every day or two. If I have time to write one long email, I write him most of the time.

So, I like getting long emails but I usually reply in kind when I can and if I can't, I don't. Sometimes this means I just reply something quick "Hey glad you're well, looking forward to seeing you this weekend" or sometimes it means I just file a longer email and sort of ignore the chatty "how was your day" sorts of questions. I mean if someone has a real question "Where did you put the blender when you emptied my dishwasher" I'll get back to them, but if it's more existential blabity blah, I don't usually do that sort of thing over email, so I'll file it. More to the point, I have a few people I do long email exchanges with and I don't have too much time to add people to that list, especially in summertime. So if you're striking up a friendship with someone who seems equally enthused, by all means go for it. If you mean to say "Yeah I'll be at the party" and you write a long amusing email full of things that maybe need responding to, you may find that people read it but don't reply, since they're going to see you at the party anyhow.

And since I do this to some extent, I also assume people are doing this to me as well so try not to get too bent out of shape if I don't hear back to MY occasional long emails. If I need something, especially a reply, I'll write something short and easily responded to. I think for a lot of people reading and replying on their phone, shorter is easier and more likely.
posted by jessamyn at 11:26 AM on August 9, 2010

Cat Pie HurtsPoster: Huh. I had no idea that verbosity in email was considered a not-good thing. This may actually explain a lot of things for me when it comes to some past inexplicable (to me) interactions I've had.

Look, in all honesty, the amount of email many people are faced with has re-positioned the way a lot of folks view email. I see it as a medium for actionable information (yes, no, the blender is in the dishwasher, Tuesday at 8) and reduce as much of my correspondence as humanly possible to that bare minimum.

If you send me a long chatty personal email, I will reply in-line with full sentences at a rate of one or two for each clump of thematically joined paragraphs and suggest a phone call. I do not have time to run email as a personal conversation channel. I learned this by being exactly where you are and never ever getting around to replying to those. Hence, I radically changed the way I conduct my email correspondence and am much more efficient, if less friendly.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:41 PM on August 9, 2010

A great option for replying to the long emails that seem to need a nice long answer is to send off an immediate reply that answers any important questions, or just thanks them for there nice long email, with the idea that when you get time, you will write them a proper email. This way they at least know that you got it and that you would love to see them in September, and you cut through the guilt trap of not having replyed.
posted by kjs4 at 8:27 PM on August 9, 2010

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