The Amish of Email

I have a confession: I'm really struggling in the age of email.

I hate how email has transformed my work life. I don't know about your place of work, but the Inbox dominates where I work. It is the lingua franca of the office.

I've never been able to reconcile myself to this change. I do appreciate how email facilitates communication. But email has created a kind of supernova effect. By making communication so easy we've unleashed a flood. My sense is that we now overcommunicate. Further, the copying feature of email brings me into all sorts of conversations that only tangentially relate to me. But I still have to wade through it all. Add into this all the inconsequential email that fills up my Inbox. For example, after our family vacation I received an email from every hotel we stayed at asking how the stay went.

So I've given up. I'm tired. I just don't care about email anymore. Unless someone is dying or I'm about to get fired I hardly ever respond.

I exaggerate of course. But people who work closely with me know this is close to the truth. My faculty pretty much know that, as they have said many times, "Richard doesn't check or answer his email."

Here's the deal. I'm 42. I might live to, what, 80ish? Given those numbers I don't want to spend my remaining years clearing my Inbox. I want to live.

But here's the problem. The world expects me to manage my email. I'm supposed to sit down every day, read my correspondence, and reply. And it's this expectation that is killing me.

Here's what I struggle with. If you send me an email the expectation is that I'll look at this fairly quickly (within a few hours) and get back to you. But here's the thing. What if I don't look at my email but once a week? What if that's the way I choose to use the technology?

True, such a strategy wouldn't work for many of you given where you work. But can you see my point? Outside of places where timely email correspondence is integral to the work, there is a background assumption that everyone, regardless of the correspondence, is using email in this quick ping-pong manner. The expectation is that I'll read the email and get back to you within 24 hours or so (barring things like travel).

But what if I choose to get back with non-urgent emails in 1-2 weeks? What if I want to use email in that manner? What if that pace seems more humane to me?

My compliant is that I'm not allowed that choice. That pace is not the general expectation. The sender isn't expecting to wait for a reply in 1-2 weeks.

But why not? Just because they emailed me they are entitled to a quicker response? True, the email opens up the opportunity for a quicker response, but you are not, strictly speaking, entitled to that speed. The pace of my life just might be different. The Amish still ride in buggies. Cars exist, but the Amish don't avail themselves of that speed. For religious reasons. I'm the same way. I'm the Amish of email. Yes, email has made things quicker, but I don't have to speed up. I could, but I don't want to.

The trouble is, how do you communicate this to people? How do you say, yes, I have an email address, but I use it very differently. Unless the communication is urgent, I'm working on the timeframe of weeks. (Consequently, if I know I'm going to run into you within 1-2 weeks I might not respond at all. I'll actually see you, face-to-face, before I get around to my Inbox. You'd be surprised how often this is the case in my workplace. And if this is so, why can't we just talk to each other when we see each other?)

So I don't know what to do. Maybe I should just create an automated pingback for my email address:

"Thank you so much for your email. Despite general usage and cultural expectations, I tend to check my email infrequently and sporadically. I'll try to get back to you in 1-2 weeks."

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

29 thoughts on “The Amish of Email”

  1. That auto-response would be awesome... but how to you reconcile your slow e-mail response time to frequent blogging/comments? Is it just a preference for a different technology, spatial reasons, or something else?

    (expecting a response within 1 hour)

  2. I like this, but I can't figure out how to incorporate it into my life. I have six children, most of whom I don't see often. Additionally most of them don't answer the phone, but they will answer a text or an e-mail! So I want that immediate response from them. However, I can see how addicted I am to my e-mail. I sometimes will check it four or five times or more a day. There is something wrong with that. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

    I don't expect any response, unless you feel like it in a week or two.

  3. I do think that one of the great blessings of email and the Internet generally is how it links loved ones across the miles.

  4. That's a good question. For some reason, I feel pecked at by email. Like it's pushing on me.

    Blogging, by contrast, is a hobby for me. I like messing around with ideas, just for the fun of it. I know some bloggers who feel that the blog pecks at them, demanding a new post from them. I understand that feeling and have felt it from time to time. But for the most part I need the outlet, kind of like journaling. For whatever reason, blogging is relaxing to me, recreation.

  5. Amen and amen. I think there was a book released recently called "The Tyranny of Email." I didn't get to read it yet, but saw it mentioned here and there. I think it's actually one of the most important questions for churches and Christian universities (and why the iPhone was such an ambiguous, if not largely negative, decision by ACU). The church simply does not have to accept the way the wider culture expects us to live, particularly when it is insane. If we all agreed to check our email twice a week, we'd all be a lot saner -- and most of the positives (long distance, correspondence, connectivity) would still be present.

  6. I spent a lot of time on our family travels thinking about how I relate to my iPhone, spiritually speaking. (And, generally speaking, I think I handle it in a pretty sane manner.)

    Regardless, I've yet to see sustained theological reflection on the campus on this topic.

  7. I think to some degree, e-mail is the new snail mail, because if you REALLY want to get in touch with somebody here and now, you send them a text message, a tweet, or a Facebook message, because they're more likely to respond to you there right away.

    Me, I'm kind of in an odd boat. I've "grown up" with computers and was hooked ever since I saw the first one at my aunt's house. I use a website now that will aggregate my e-mail stream, Facebook stream, and Twitter stream into a single place. Instead of overwhelming me, I think it has balanced things out, because the constant streams are on the side, and only the direct items that affect me show up in my primary view.

    I think I've also reached the level of "netiquette" that says that good e-mail responses take time, and are worth waiting for. So I won't send a quick reply unless it is needed (such as to my wife, though we text more these days 8^D) and it all works out.

    If it matters age wise, I'm about 10 years younger than you. 8^D

    For some really good reads on technology and theology/spiritual living, take a read through of some blog posts by John Dyer at He has a lot of really good insights

  8. Hi Jeff,
    This is actually very helpful.

    I really don't think the auto-response is the right way to go, mainly because it would be so hellishly annoying to get that pingback if you you 1) were sending me something urgent and 2) emailed me, out of necessarily, a great deal (i.e., I'd be filling you Inbox up with crap). In short, the auto-response idea is more of a rant than a positive solution.

    If I think about it, a lot of this post is probably me externalizing a lot of guilt. Given that I'm so bad at getting back to people via email I leave a lot of people hanging. And I feel guilty about that. So rather than take personal responsibility I'm lashing out here at the technology and the senders themselves. That's really not a productive, or even Christian, way to approach what is, at root, a personal failing.

    That said, there is a grain of truth in my post, an attempt to think through the way the expectations of modern life, surrounding technology or not, subtly affect and even afflict us.

  9. It occurred to me that even Jesus needed to make himself inaccessible at times, and even he was anxious about not being accessible for his friends at all times (recall the reason for the famous "Jesus wept." verse). And back then there was no technological interface. So we can all relax, knowing we are in good company with our anxiety over our limitations... (Yes, I see the contradictions in the comment--frame it as a meta-perspective.)

  10. Just as a techno-geek FYI, you can create a "rule" in your email system that will provide that "email response proviso" only once to each unique email address - so everyone who sends you an email will get your "modus operandi" the first time, but not thereafter. Just one way to communicate that you plan to operate at a different cadence.

  11. I don't understand people when they say that they don't have time to reply to email -- you must get a lot more email than I do (very likely!) and it must require much more thoughtful, detailed and lengthy replies. Most of my email doesn't require a response. Most of the remainder needs only a few lines. And then there are a few relationships where email has (happily) taken the place of a weekly posted letter or phone call -- I do spend 10 or 15 mins on each of those and I enjoy it.

    I guess I don't get the stress you feel, and I don't understand why, if this is NOT how you want to spend your time, you feel guilty about it. Because you're not trying hard enough to be connected? Because people feel slighted or impatient? Simply because you feel inadequate to meet others' implicit expectations?

    You seem to think the auto-responder isn't the way to go (per your comments), but I think it makes perfect sense. It's clear and it resets expectations for everyone. And the people that email you 10 times a day will soon stop.

  12. or, (c): unlike most of us, the Amish understand that every technological change is ecological, and artifacts have politics; on that basis they weigh carefully adopting a particular technology will change their way of life more than they want. Their ideas of the way of life they want to preserve may be strange, but the underlying philosophy is sound, and superior to most. (cf. You are not a gadget, by Jaron Lanier)

  13. Wow, I could have written this very same post and I'm 43 too. ;-)

    I do check my e-mail frequently (though less and less these days) but I generally take pretty long to respond. I feel like I actually resent the "expectation" that comes with e-mail. God has a right to my time, my family has a right to my time --pretty much everyone else needs to just wait.

    I love the automated pingback but yeah I can see why it's not really feasible.

    Oh and I live in Amish country (Lancaster County, PA) and while it's true that the Amish don't drive cars they have no problem riding in them --frequently. Trust me, if they find out you are willing to drive them they call just about every day for a ride somewhere.

  14. Wow, I could have almost written this exact post and I'm 43 too. ;-)

    I check my e-mail frequently (though less and less these days) but I generally take pretty long to respond. I'm finding that I actually resent the "expectation" that comes with e-mail. God has a right to my time, my family has a right to my time --pretty much everyone else needs to just wait.

    I love the automated pingback but yeah I can see why it's not really feasible.

    Oh and I live in Amish country (Lancaster County, PA) and while it's true that the Amish don't drive cars they have no problem riding in them --frequently. Trust me, if they find out you are willing to drive them they call just about every day for a ride somewhere.

  15. just curious if it would be considered plagerism to copy your pingback and use it myself? :) LOVED this article!

  16. Perhaps I'm missing something here. Waiting a week or two to answer an email acheives exactly what? The email still gets answered, the same amount of time is spent on the answer. It's just delayed.

    My friend keeps a cleaner house than I do. One day I realized that she doesn't actually put all that much more time into hers than I do mine. We just do it at different times (and hers, I think, is better). Example: my laundry will pile up until I do 5 loads in one day. Hers gets done regularly. We both spend the same amount of time during the average week washing clothes, but in the meantime, her hampers are empty and mine are full and calling to me: "wash me...wash me...".

    Or, in the case of email: "answer me...answer me..."

    (I've greatly enjoyed reading your thoughts by the've got me thinking...)
    Chris in Canada

  17. (excuse the spelling mistake in the previous comment. 'i' before 'e' except after 'c') :-)

    Chris in Canada

  18. One difference between e-mail and laundry is that if you do the laundry faster, the laundry will be done faster. If you e-mail faster and faster, the e-mail comes back into your inbox that much faster, meaning you have to clean it out faster..and least that has been my experience. I think he is talking about the pace you choose for your life. E-mail does tend to expect a certain pace, and if that pace doesn't work for you, then I think it is okay to get left behind by the ever quickening culture.

  19. boy, isn't this true. I too get tired of my emails. One time, it was my do all and end all. Now I have to force myself to go look and when I look, I look for ones that I deem important, all others just sit there.

  20. As you will discover in September, I am very thankful for this post! I intend to quote you often.

  21. I like the different folders you get with email that way if there's something I don't need to look at right away or I want to save for business reasons I can just dump the emails in the appropriate folder. If I set it up right, the computer will dump the emails in the appropriate folder for me.

    I'm a year older and I prefer email over snail mail or phone calls. snail mail takes a lot more time to file and process than email. Phone calls tend to be more disruptive than email. I spend a lot of time talking about the weather, etc. with phone calls, where I can usually just talk business in an email. Phone calls might be more personal, but they take more time -even if I just let the call go to voicemail, I have to remember to go back and follow up.

    And f2f takes even more time. I don't regret phone calls or f2f, but I want my voice time with people to be spent talking about feelings not business. Email allows me to keep the impersonal impersonal in a quick and easy format. Email gives me the background info necessary to make the most use of my f2f or voice connections.

  22. I am doing research in attachment and spiritual practice.  How can I get a copy of the attachment inventory you mentioned in one of your article? 

  23.  The AGI is in the appendix of this article:,d.b2I

Leave a Reply