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What happened to email etiquette?

You carefully compose an email, turning down an invitation or a request, and then… nothing. There's no response

The question is, what happens when you say no?
The question is, what happens when you say no? (iStockphoto)

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Shakespearean scholars have spent a lot of time thinking about the third murderer in Macbeth. Was it Macbeth all along who killed Banquo so he was practised at assassination before the much-angsted over murder of the King? Was it the Thane Ross? Was it Macduff, as James Thurber says in The Macbeth Murder Mystery? Was it, you know, Destiny? I say good for these scholar types who are so fascinated by the Third Murderer but I prefer to spend my time trying to solve the Mystery of The Third Email.

Now before I get into this properly, I know there comes a time in the life of every young or youngish columnist when she writes a column pondering aloud about a social nicety and the criminals who violate these rules. It is in that exact moment that the young columnist also hears the loud ding-dong of mortality. Surely only the ancient sit around wondering and writing about good manners. However, in my experience the elderly in India, with good reason, throw off the shackles of politeness and dive deep into the guts of those who annoy them. And the social nicety that I am about to hop on my soapbox for, that one has suffered equal opportunity crimes. Age no bar.

What on earth is the Third Mail, you may be wondering. Let me explain.

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Mail #1. This is the first sortie that arrives in your inbox. Sometimes it is sincere, sometimes arch and giggly. Sometimes it is optimistic. Other times, grim and determined. Whatever the variation in tone, the first mail is the one asking you for something. I have, in recent times, been asked to come to a literary festival, review a book, join the team founding a vital new journalism outfit, write a recommendation letter. If you do the work I do, these are the kinds of emails you get. Depending on what work you do, you know the kind of emails you get asking you for money, time, effort.

Mail #2. This is the email you write in response. Depending on your state of mind or whatever productivity book you have read recently, you either respond right away or in a while. A caveat. If you say yes, then the email that you get afterwards has nothing to do with the column. I am only interested in what happens if you say “no”.

Another disclaimer. My impending growl is only about this kind of email, where you are asked for something. If your acquaintance or friend has sent you an email asking whether you are coming to someone’s wedding in Puducherry or your old boyfriend sent you a testing-the-waters message, you start a thread— and the correspondence stops eventually. It is hard sometimes to gauge where to stop on email/WhatsApp/DM. Sometimes you are going along full steam and the other person stops replying. You have to learn to gird your loins and teach yourself that this infinite scroll does not mean infinite lol. You have to find someone else to share that Usha Jey dance video with and start all over again. That natural hiatus in conversation is not what I am talking about.

Like any other working person interested in not going round the bend, at some point you learn to say no. You cannot say yes to everything unless you have clones or you don’t mind being miserable as well as making a mess of everything. Sometimes the most exciting leaps in your career come from completely unexpected sources.

One of my most interesting jobs came in a DM from an acquaintance I had never met. It was a mildly terrifying prospect and I had moments of panic-nausea and wanting to say no but I am so glad I said yes.

However, there are going to be a zillion times when you have to say no. Because the timing is wrong or the money is wrong or because it is boring or, you know, any number of perfectly valid reasons. Such as you just don’t want to. But you also don’t want to be the kind of person that earns a Do Not Call Ever note on other people’s spreadsheets. You want to be offered work and opportunities to be part of your larger professional or social universe. If you are invested in continuing to work, you also learn how to say no.

You figure out how to do it. I often say no with suggestions of who might be interested in doing the task or who might be better qualified. Very often, there are more qualified people than the obvious name. I almost always explain (whether truthfully or not) why I am unavailable to do the task or perform the favour. If it is just a question of the timing and it is a recurring event, I always ask to be remembered the next time the event rolls around. I also offer my support and good wishes for whatever the enterprise is. All of this, this elaborate response, was not designed because I should be writing a manners column. It is because I hope to continue to work and live in the world. And very importantly, because I am at the other end, writing to people requesting them for a million things all the time, always with my fingers crossed.

Now we come to Mail #3. When I ask someone to write an essay, come to a party, speak at an event, share their insights, and they say no, my response ranges from disappointment to doom to muttering under my breath. Sometimes, I am not going to lie, there are also queasy feelings, headaches and other physiological manifestations that need me to immediately become horizontal. But in that moment, before I chicken out or have full-blown lying- under-blanket syndrome, I usually send off a sad little email/brave, ebullient email thanking my almost benefactor for considering my offer. Again, this is not a sign of my superior anything, I just know there will be other times when the other person might say yes.

And here is my question. What has happened to Mail #3? Where has it gone? Is it, as we used to say in the hard copy days, lost in the post? Because I am not getting too many of them these days.

I am startled by the number of times I send emails full of feeling and detail to people saying “no, sorry, not this time, for sure next time” and then… nothing. The person who said I was the only one who could review that book, the only person they wanted on their panel, the ONLY person who would complete the founding team of a new website—The founding team! Not the last consultant hired who brings some skills—never replies to my “extremely sorry, no”. Not a line. Was the person founding their team in a war zone or while climbing Kanchenjunga or going down in a submarine?

I cannot tell you how much this baffles me. Is this person’s vision of the future limited to the 24-hour life cycle of a fruit fly? Is their memory like the goldfish? What is the plan, founder bro?

Or wait, do they think that my memory is like the goldfish? Because I just want to say to folks who think they are being efficient with their slash-and-burn correspondence style, this is what they should do with the time they saved by not sending the third email. They should remember that I remember. We make notes in the colour-coded spreadsheets in our heads. That every one of us who sent carefully composed regrets and does not get the third mail that completes the dance, we all remember.

We remember and we know you a little better. Alexander Pope meant it in quite a different way but in this case, while we are railing against this social solecism, he won’t mind us misquoting when we say, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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