"I have at least 300 unread emails in my inbox right now," an acquaintance of mine bemoaned over a glass of wine last week. I shuddered, imagining how bothered I'd be by that amount of unchecked surplus, and reached for the bottle.
"Really? Last time I checked I was in the thousands," another friend countered, upping the ante pretty abruptly. "I know someone with literally 50,000 plus," somebody else cooed.
All of a sudden, I felt a real urge to spit out a bigger number. Why? Because I sensed we were competing for something. That little -- or rather, enormous -- number situated to the right of my envelope icon was taking on new meaning. To these people, to my friends, unread emails didn't symbolize being disorganized or incompetent. They symbolized being needed. They symbolized being in demand. They symbolized being important. They were, in effect, like a badge of honor.
But wait. A few months ago, the Internet was agog with anecdotes about inbox shame. There are two kinds of people in this world, a meme purported: those who maintain inbox level zero and those who let the unread emails mount to ridiculous heights. More than a few writers confirmed the power of this viral dichotomy. Approximately half of us compulsively delete, sort and filter, taking pleasure in being in the gmail equivalent of the black, they said. The other half watch as the numbers rise, checking only the emails they deem necessary, letting the others fester like an open wound.
The Atlantic's Joe Pinsker likened this curious meme to Muppet Theory, Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick's "Sesame Street" version of chaos theory. "Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet," Lithwick claimed. While Order Muppets "tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises," their cousins, Chaos Muppets, are "out-of-control, emotional, volatile." Check the phone of a Chaos Muppet like Gonzo and you're likely to find unread emails abounding.
Writer Anna Breslaw took it further. "There are 'the 0 unread emails people,' and 'the 13,000 unread emails people,'" she reiterated in Elle, creating a system in which the "0 unread" people get to look down on the "13,000 unread" people. "This implies, obviously, that the 13k people are disorganized, forgetful, and easily overwhelmed," she added. This characterization, like Lithwick's indictment of the Chaos Muppet, is not kind.
Hence, the feeling of inbox shame.
Except, the "13,000 unread" are revolting. The "13,000 unread" no longer feel shame for their email neglect; instead, they feel pride. They are actually competing for who can reach a higher number of unread emails. Thirteen thousand? Pshaw. I have a colleague who boasts 87,006 unchecked bits of correspondence as of publication of this piece. A quick Twitter search surpassed even that.
Cultural commentators, though quick to sing the praises of the "0 unread" on the surface, have begun to come to the aid of the "13,000."
You see, keeping our inboxes clean involves a lot of multitasking, flitting from one duty (like, writing this article) to another (habitually checking my email every five minutes) with varying degrees of attention.
"Trying to do too many things at once makes people aggressive, impulsive and less sharp," Sophie McBain wrote in The New Statesman. She cites research from neuroscientist David Levitin, "which suggests that simply noticing there’s a new email in your inbox while trying to concentrate on a different task reduces your IQ by 10 points." Ouch.
"When someone drops everything just to get an unread count back to zero, productivity might be taking a hit," Pinsker emphasized. "The appeal of these behaviors lies in the illusion of progress that they foster," he added later. "Few tasks have a sense of conclusion as neat and immediate as archiving or deleting an email. For that reason, neurotically tidy people like me can't help but triage emails the moment they arrive."
Well, the Chaos Muppets have taken note. They are no longer ashamed of their indecorously messy email accounts. They are proud. A stack of unread emails means there are people out there who need your reply. A stack of unread emails means you're virtuously overworked. Call it a symptom of the "busy-bragging" epidemic. We love to tell people how #stressed we are, because it reveals some semblance of our status in the professional world. And unread emails represent an easy and quantifiable method of measuring that stress.
When I pressed my colleague -- who is certainly not your typical braggadocious type -- about her unread email queue, she said that her 87,006 number was a dark symbol of her inability to become organized. But then she added: "Sometimes I will brag [about it] in a party trick kind of way though."
What are we to do about this new trend of workplace swagger? Just as we grow tired of hearing our peers boast about their stress, I propose we side-eye any attempts to faux-complain about our unread email trove. The next time someone grumbles about their thousands of unkempt emails, resist the urge to compete. Continue sipping your wine and take refuge in the fact that we're all just Muppets trying to make our way in this Muppet world.
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