“I’m So Sorry for the Delay in My Reply:” Do You Have the Curse of the E-Good Girl?

FROM: Rachel Simmons

TO: Friends, Family, Colleagues, Readers, Old Students, Current Students, Parents, Teachers, Random People I Went to High School With & Spammers

DATE: February 18, 2010

RE: The Curse of the E-Good Girl

I’m so sorry for taking this long to write you back. I was away for a few days and am digging out from the emails that piled up! It’s a giant, digital deluge.

I need to confess something: If even a few days go by without me replying to you, I start to worry. Am I making you feel bad? Am I being rude? And the most fifth grade fear of all: will you be mad at me?

I find myself apologizing constantly. “I’m sorry for the delay in replying, but…”. “Sorry it’s taken me so long.” I do it so often I can cut and paste the phrases into each email reply. One day, drowning in electronic apologies, it hit me: I have the curse of the e-Good Girl.

Sure, everybody’s got email problems. But if you’re the kind of person who worries about disappointing others, who wants to be liked, who wants to do everything right, a mounting pile of email lights your Good Girl issues up like a Christmas tree.

When I stop and think about it, I realize that letting four or five days go by before responding to you is actually not a big deal. With all the instant technology at our disposal (text! Chat! Skype!), I’ve gotten warped about what “a long time” really means. The pressure for an immediate response has gotten out of hand.

And my productivity suffers. When I’m writing back to you, I’m not working on a lesson plan or a book chapter. It’s just that answering email is so darn attractive. It offers a satisfying double hit of blazing through my to-do list and fulfilling my need to be nice and please you. (By the way, it turns out the book chapter doesn’t say thank you. It doesn’t think I’m a nice person for writing it, either).

In a highly scientific survey, I asked one of my best friends, who works in publishing, if she ever felt like this. It was Saturday morning and we were both trudging through our inbox (yes, the word “Saturday” is what is wrong with that sentence). When I asked her if she had the Curse of the E-Good Girl, I could practically hear her sit up.

“Totally,” she said. “I don’t want clients to be mad at me, I don’t want friends to be mad at me. I don’t want business associates to think I’m being disrespectful. I don’t want people to think I’m ignoring them. But by doing so, I’m making their time more important than my time.”

Hey, maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe my friend and I are just Exhibit A of the research on gender and communication: women tend to communicate more socially, while men tend to adopt a more task-oriented (read: short, sweet, guilt-free, unapologetic and to the point) style.

But I’m not sold on that. Fact is, what we do in real life migrates online, Curses of Good Girls included. A 2001 New York Times article explored gender differences in e-mail. It cited the research of Dr. Susan C. Herring, a professor of information science and linguistics, who found that in online groups, “men tend to make strong assertions, disagree with others and use profanity, insults and sarcasm. By contrast, women tend to use mitigated assertions along with questions, offers, suggestions and polite expressions. They are supportive and agreeable, peppering their messages with more emoticons and representations of laughter, like ‘haha,’ ‘heehee’ and ‘lol,’ for “laughing out loud.”

The reporter also interviewed a college student who explained her need to drop everything and reply to her friends’ emails. “Even if I don’t have a lot of time, I will respond right away and be, like, `I don’t have time now, but will write a longer e-mail later,’” said the Good Girl to the Gray Lady. Hope that doesn’t mean, Even if I have a Chem final, I’ll respond right away. Or, Even if the building is on fire, I will so write you back.

This same article quotes a Rensselaer Polytechnic professor who confesses she is unable to answer emails concisely, even when a one-word answer is expected. “I say, `Yes, that’s fine,’ or `Yes, that’s O.K.’” She wonders aloud to the reporter: “Why can’t I just say no? If I know someone, I will answer even longer.” I’ve got an idea about why you can’t just say no. It starts with a C and it ends with an “Urse.”

Joking aside, I want to know: is it just me and my friend, or do you also feel the pressure to prioritize email to others over your own professional obligations? Maybe if we all talk about it, we can agree to give each other some more berth in response times and a pass on the guilt.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being the nicer, gentler sex online. Relationship building is a vital “soft skill” that gets you ahead in all areas of life. And I’m all for softening the Interwebs with my sensitivity and responsiveness. But as I often say to the girls and women I work with, when kindness comes too often at your own expense, it’s not a kindness worth having.

So here’s my plan: I want to stop feeling guilty for needing time to reply. I want to stop apologizing for the delay. I want to have days where I don’t email but instead just work on my own stuff. I don’t want to stress about what you’re thinking or feeling. You’ll be okay, and if you’re not, we’ll talk about it, right? Since, as Dr. Herring’s research shows, you’re more likely to be supportive and pepper me with emoticons.

So I’m really sorry to do this, but I need to start choosing myself, and my productivity, over a quick reply. Oh, wait, scratch that. I’m not sorry. That’s the first step.

  1. Shannon Rigney Keane

    This is so, so true. I feel preoccupied by guilt if I allow my emails to go unanswered for a long time (you know, like a few days). I, too, spend way too much time returning lengthy emails when I should be spending time on my own projects. But, it’s not just the emails – it’s also the phone calls, the instant messages, and the texts! And I don’t even have Facebook or Twitter to deal with.

    Why is it so hard to say to friends and acquaintances, "Really busy. Will get back to you later." Or, better yet, not respond at all until time allows. Remember when one might have called a friend on the phone and gotten NO ANSWER? And that "no answer" meant "no one available to take the call right now." Now, we seem to be of the mindset that everybody *should* be in communication at all times just because we *can* be.

    I’m all for bringing back the no answer.


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