March 6, 2022

DERY | What Email Culture Reveals About America

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If I met you in person, I would greet you with “hi,” but over email, I would use “dear” instead. Despite the use of modern-day slang in nearly every other communication medium, somehow the messages in my Gmail “sent” folder resemble letters dating back to the 1800s more than they do anything we would say in the 21st century. One would expect email — like landlines or flip phones — to have become outdated with time, ultimately giving way to modern forms of communication like social media or texting. Yet, email has sneakily blended in amongst modern social media, even though its core principle remains largely unchanged from its inception in the 20th century.

Why is it, then, that the rise and fall of MySpace and Vine all happened during a time when email remained a steady form of online communication? Perhaps this is not so surprising. With every new social media platform that offers even more intimate ways of sending texts, DMs and memes, we have not rid ourselves of the desire to fall back to the opposite. Across what is now several generations, email fills an important need invariant in the American landscape: the need to keep our distance.

This culture is very much alive in our day-to-day email correspondence as students. When we repeatedly greet someone with “dear” after every reply, our apparent politeness can double as a barrier between our personal lives and that of our correspondent; In greeting each other anew with every consecutive reply, we reestablish the notion that we are mere professional acquaintances with our correspondent, freeing ourselves from any obligation to truly get to know them. When we go out of our way to conjure up sentences with antiquated speech in our email correspondences in lieu of the language we use in casual conversation, we prevent our recipient from interacting with our true personalities. 

In a professional setting like a college campus, being vulnerable in this way isn’t necessarily embraced. In fact, the desire to appear formal is so heavily entrenched in us that previous columns have even called for instructions for how to conform in writing emails. It’s akin to one of the most common greetings we use on a daily basis — “how are you?” — to which we’re expected to give a polite “good, thanks” instead of an honest answer. But, the way we email and interact here on campus is only a microcosm of the distance we keep from each other as Americans in general. Unfortunately, it’s one that began long before the era of social distancing. 

I’ve recently heard from international students and workers in Ithaca that they feel the culture in the States is centered around pursuit of work or prestige, without forming strong connections to home communities or having genuine care for neighbors. Email has allowed us to confront this reality with an unspoken rule: we email because we need something from someone, not because we genuinely want to connect with them. The typical “I hope this email finds you well” we include before asking for a deadline extension or attaching our resume is a cop out to reassure the recipient (or perhaps in a deeper sense, ourselves) of our humanity.

I still remember my excitement when I created my first email account in the fourth grade. As I looked at my new inbox that only had two promotional emails, I became jealous of my parents whose inboxes were flooded with hundreds of unread messages. In associating emails with learning to feel and act like adults, we unknowingly train ourselves to understand mature adults as people who communicate less intimately. We aspire to trade in our silly school bus banter that is more intimate and human than any email can possibly be, for professional correspondence with subject lines and sign-offs. We ultimately grow to become more distanced from our peers and neighbors.  

In this way, the polite formalities that compose a well-mannered society really establish barriers between us. Only once we put aside America’s often ingenuine politeness can we all work toward fostering a warm, less-cliquey culture on campus and beyond. 

Roei Dery ’23 (he/him) is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column, The Dery Bar, runs every other Monday this semester.