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

By | February 17th, 2010 | 17 comments

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.

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

  • MD Kawsar says:

    Great post. I really appreciate your work.

  • SBOBET says:

    It’s like a huge weight lifted off me to imagine that this constant worry might be a ‘Good Girl’ trait I need to do away

  • Markav says:

    I adore the way you write, it is so natural yet not so formal. Could i pick you as the one of my writing idols ?

  • sbobet says:

    Mornings – whether you love them or hate them, they’ll set the tone for your entire day. Everyone wants to be more productive

  • gclub says:

    I kid you not, 99 out of 100 times when I tell people I am a professional travel blogger, that question pops up at one point or another, generally accompanied with a look on their faces like I’ve grown a second head. Sometimes it’s subtly snuck into

  • sbobet says:

    The real problem with stress is that, for such a well understood and universally experienced condition, as a society we deal with it so poorly that it leads to many of our most

  • baidu123 says:

    Thank you so much for your comments and feedback, they mean a lot to me!

  • Lauren Herold says:

    This is so on point. I think it applies to Facebook messages and text messages too–sometimes I don’t respond to those for a couple of days and then feel horrible because they are supposed to be forms of instant communication. Something that helps me sometimes is scheduling in time to email, like “this morning I will email for 1 hour” and then dropping it and doing something else. That way I’ve been productive, even if I haven’t written all the emails I wanted to, and can compartmentalize it in my brain so it doesn’t take over my life.

  • I’ve noticed this with so many of my friends and colleagues! I don’t tend to apologize for a delay unless there’s a real reason to, like if a question needed to be answered immediately or something. But I’m honestly incapable of leaving anything in my inbox for longer than a few hours. It has nothing to do with making someone else unhappy, it’s strictly my own neurosis! I’ve learned that, in order to keep myself sane, my work style had to change to envelope email as a continuous task, rather than something I check only at certain times. I’m the girl that wakes up when the blackberry buzzes at 2am…can’t let that spam wait until morning! Apparently I have the e-Obsessive Girl Curse.

  • Oh my god, this is the story of my life! Especially lately. Honestly, I don’t care personally if someone writes me back a week later (unless it’s urgent of course), so why should everyone else? Shelby, I love the NRN thing!

  • This is such a good reminder. I’m afraid I suffer from this — as well as with volunteering. My husband bought me a notepad for the holidays that says, “Stop me before I volunteer again!”

    Seriously, I try to be better and I’m trying to get myself off of some things I volunteered for when I should have known better. trying better at ‘me first” this year!

    • I definitely do something similar….for me, it’s delaying the “no” moment. The problem is, saying “no” later, after I’ve committed, is much, much harder than doing it in the first moment. It doesn’t really make sense but I still get myself in those pickles!

  • Shelby Knox says:

    I’m constantly stressed and guilty about emails to which I didn’t respond quickly (or at all) – I think about it in the shower, at the gym, on the train. With each hour that ticks by, I’m sure life-changing opportunities are passing me by and I’m disappointing everyone!

    What’s best about this blog is that I had never once thought about this constant guilt in relationship to neglecting my own work to respond to emails – it just seems like a necessary evil in the modern workplace and my inability to respond to everyone quickly, all the time, just another sign that I’ll never be a successful career person.

    It’s like a huge weight lifted off me to imagine that this constant worry might be a ‘Good Girl’ trait I need to do away with instead of a symptom of my career failure. THAT – the feeling of suddenly knowing that nothing is wrong with you but there is something wrong with the world that makes you think there is – is feminism. Thanks, Rachel for this “click moment!”

    Also, a tip: One of my friends and I email each other A LOT about work stuff. Because we’re close personally, we both felt compelled to give a short reply to each email. We decided to give a gift to each other of putting ‘NRN’ (No Response Needed) at the bottom of emails that really don’t need one. I found we’re both so grateful for this that we’re nicer and more comprehensive in communication that does require a response. I thought this was something I could do only with a close friend – after this blog, I’m going to propose the policy to more people in my life!

    • Nice use of the “click” moment, Shelby — am reading “Click” right now and can’t wait to get to your essay :). NRN rules me – we need to institute a worldwide NRN rule. I may even update the blog to point readers to your comment (if I can keep my eyes open through my jet lag!). Thanks for your awesome comment!!

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  • tshirtman says:

    Hi, just to say this is not gender specific, I do, and know other guy’s doing this, and well, I don’t think you can consider me “effeminate” (large guy, likely to fight for fun, always acting strong… that kind of things), I try to be polite in every mail I send, and if it took me more than 24 hours to answers, I consider it bad, and appologize…

    Well maybe I will be doing it less, thanks for the hint ;).

    • So glad you said that! As I was typing it, I definitely felt like there were guys out there who would relate. I am overgeneralizing about gender for sure…thanks so much for keeping this discussion nuanced.

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