The psychology behind email anxiety

by Navya Barua (’24) | November 19, 2021

Artwork by Matthew Tran (’23)

The world of communication changed forever when Ray Tomlison, a computer engineer working in Cambridge, Massachusetts, discovered a way for people to interact with each other through a system of sending messages between computers called “e-mail.” Email quickly became popular in the ’90s with the creation of platforms like Hotmail and Outlook. Users could now communicate with those across the street, city, state, and even world without having to travel or wait long intervals to receive a physical letter in the mailbox. Unfortunately, with this new technology came a new phenomenon: email anxiety. 

Email anxiety is the intense fear and anticipation associated with constantly checking your inbox. When someone fails to immediately respond to an email, the brain naturally crafts excuses to explain the delay, contributing to an overall sense of worry. This wait also causes people to wonder if they said something wrong or if their recipient is angry with them. Receiving an email can be equally as stress-inducing; the message may contain anything from a reminder of your professional responsibilities to an admission decision from your dream college.

There are multiple reasons why emails can cause such anxiety. People refresh their inboxes obsessively because they never know when an intriguing message will appear, leaving them in constant anticipation of an email to pique their interest. Furthermore, emails induce worry because they compel one to answer promptly and appropriately. Numerous studies suggest that humans follow a “rule of reciprocity,” which simply means that they feel obliged to respond with a positive message when they receive one. For example, when a friend lets you borrow her notes from the class you missed, you feel obliged to thank her. 

The same principle applies to emails; when someone sends you a kind “thank you” message, you feel inclined to respond with an equally kind reply. This obligation causes concern over how to echo the sincerity, as one overthinks how the recipient will react and stresses over spelling and grammar. 

Much of email anxiety is rooted in the fact that communication over email lacks important social feedback. Because non-verbal communication lacks the crucial opportunity to read people’s movement, facial cues, and tone of voice, people remain unsure about how the other individual truly feels. In fact, it was recently discovered that humans naturally read emails with a negative mindset, causing a spiral of overthinking.

To combat the widespread phenomenon, psychologist Kia-Rai M. Brewitt outlines three simple techniques to subdue email anxiety. The first technique is to clearly communicate when you are unavailable to others. For example, set a definitive rule with yourself to ignore any emails on a Saturday night, and be upfront with others about the choice. 

The second technique is to make emails short and sweet; if someone writes you a pleasant compliment, you can respond with a simple “thank you,” rather than an entire paragraph! 

The final technique is to ask for clarification. Receiving an email that you do not completely understand can cause panic; it is vital to follow up in person, over phone call, or over video call to clarify any confusion with the sender. If the option of verbal communication is not available, reply respectfully to the email asking for an explanation, which is a far better option than remaining puzzled! 

Categories: Science

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