We Live in a New Age of Email Anxiety

They linger at the bottom of Meg Keene’s inbox in the urgent bold of the unread.

“I think about them everyday,” she says of the emails to which she just can’t muster a response.

Sometimes she’ll click one open, remember it requires some sort of complicated answer, and swiftly retreat. The ceremonial end comes after a year or two, when she gives herself permission to delete—by pressing print.

“Now it’s in hard copy,” explains the 40-year old, who runs a wedding website in Oakland, Calif. “I’m like, well that’s done. It’s like closing the stress cycle.”

Email, that most workaday form of electronic communication, is more important than ever, with so many people working remotely in isolation. And it has the power to freak people out in a thousand different ways. With life on overdrive for many of us these days, mustering up the emotional fortitude for the perfect response feels even more stressful.

“The more systems I have running in my brain, I feel like the less hard drive space I have,” Ms. Keene says. Months spent homeschooling her kids and trying to decipher which activities are Covid-safe have left her feeling paralyzed in the face of yet another email demanding a decision from her.

How do you convey gratitude, warmth and that “message received” sentiment without sounding long-winded or neglecting to do the initial dispatch justice? How soon do you have to respond? What’s the exact moment that shows you care, but assures you’re not stalking the sender?

“It just feels like a lot of pressure,” says Caroline Vander Wilt, a 36-year-old in Santa Monica, Calif., who works as a product manager for a technology company. At this point, even laudatory notes in her inbox spark anxiety.

“My response needs to reflect that compliment. I need to continue this aura of, oh I’ve tricked them into thinking I’m really brilliant,” she says. “What do I say?” She’s found herself wishing she just never received the praise in the first place.

One recent strategy has helped: replying as quickly as possible. She reckons speed makes up for any deficiencies of content.

“I don’t think they’re going to expect it to be a glorious email back,” she says. “It is freeing.”

Share Your Thoughts

What are your tricks for keeping your inbox from getting out of control? Join the conversation below.

Daniel Post Senning, author of “Emily Post’s Manners in a Digital World,” and the great-great grandson of the manners guru, says we have 24 hours to respond to an email, but being snappier can bestow an edge. Mimic the formality of the original note in your reply, adjusting things like your salutation—a casual “hello” versus a “Dear Mr. Johnson”—to match. If the email spills into a long chain, some of that structure will naturally fade. But you can do things like beginning your reply with the recipient’s initials to maintain a connection.

“Address their humanity,” Mr. Senning says. “It makes the thing that you say next much more likely to be interpreted in a way that’s not demanding.”

In a world where we’re bombarded with seemingly infinite notifications—texts and tweets, Instagram comments, Facebook likes and multiplying Slack alerts—an email can feel pointed and formal, like a real commitment, Mr. Senning says. The medium’s permanence and clarity also make it risky.

“You say something that potentially might go the wrong way in person, it dissipates. People don’t remember it as well,” says Andrew Brodsky, a management professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s business school who researches virtual workplace communication. “The thing about email is it’s unquestionably there.”

Overthinking it might just make matters worse. A working paper from Dr. Brodsky finds that the longer research participants, in this case real-estate agents and mortgage brokers, spent per character per message, the worse they reported their email ended up working out.

“You get anxious. You kind of get depleted. You start just overcrafting messages to the point that they end up being detrimental,” Dr. Brodsky says.

Karl Ostroski, a consultant in Chicago, relies on a five-minute time delay programmed into his Microsoft Outlook to catch flubs like missing attachments before sending. He also often hears his late grandmother’s voice in his head admonishing him for grammar mistakes, as though “somehow these emails are going to exist in the afterlife and she will review them with me.”

“I’ll send it and think, ugh, I don’t like how that sounded. Let me go back and reword that.”

He gives himself extra breathing room with “the acknowledgment email,” a fast, brief reply where he assures the recipient he saw their note, and will respond later in the week after he’s fully digested it. It’s a way to offer a reprieve to the other person, he says, calming any anxiety they might have over the request and confirming the ball is in his court.

Maybe now is the moment to embrace unbridled warmth and vulnerability. Catherine Newman, the Amherst, Mass.-based author of “How to Be a Person,” has found herself opting for effusive phrases in email lately. She might write “Happily!” instead of the conventional “ok.”

“It’s so bleak so much of the time right now,” she says. “Something that just sparkles for even a minute seems like our best bet.”

And what about that email you’ve been avoiding replying to—even for months, like Ms. Keene? Is it ever too late?

“Do it,” Mr. Senning says.

“No, it’s not as good as if you got in there in a timely fashion,” he acknowledges. “But don’t let that stop you from hitting your marks and reaping what rewards there are to be reaped.”

The Art of the Reply

Email tips from etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning:

Go-to lines: Unsure how to convey your gratitude? Try, “This really made my day” or, “This was a delight.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed by an especially well-written note, say, “You’re an incredible writer; I marvel at your gift.”

Back to basics: Simple phrases can be powerful. Don’t forget to use: thank you, please, you’re welcome, excuse me, I apologize.

Keep it concise: If you’re starting a third long paragraph, consider picking up the phone.

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at rachel.feintzeig@wsj.com

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